A Review of Erik Matti’s The Arrival
By Francis Joseph A. Cruz
Erik Matti has an awkward position in Philippine cinema. Unlike Joel Lamangan, Jose Javier Reyes, Mark Reyes, and the many other so-called directors who have found a niche within the artless mainstream studio system by efficiently crafting movie after movie, raking in millions of hard-earned pesos by sheer star-power and stubborn adherence to stubborn formula, satisfying themselves with utter mediocrity, Matti has always been an oddball, a description I would normally detest if suddenly hurled at me but in this case, I would consider a subtle praise. His sensibilities are so unlike his contemporaries that his movies, no matter how innately inane they are, would always have a certain quirkiness, a palatable edge that would keep you glued to your seats. More than that, Matti is a reliable craftsman. His movies would always look, sound, and feel right even if the narrative is starting to crumble and fall apart. Jumping from one genre to another, Matti has made good films (Mano Po 2: My Home (2003) is undoubtedly the best of the series; Gagamboy (2004) is a delightfully self-aware rip-off of Sam Raimi’s famous Spider-Man films; Exodus: Tales From the Enchanted Kingdom (2005) had a few grand moments; and Pa-Siyam (2004) is arguably the best mainstream horror film made the past five years) but has never really exposed himself through his films.
Thus, The Arrival, a project that kept Matti busy the past few years, is valuable despite its blatant flaws. Matti considers the film as his most personal to date, and it shows. Unchained from studio interference, The Arrival is a free-flowing rollercoaster ride from proletariat desolation to sweet freedom. Leo, the film’s protagonist, played with considerable pathos by Dwight Gaston, is a lowly bookkeeper in Manila. Unmarried, curiously content of his lonesome and anonymous existence, and consistently visited by nightly dreams of a gorgeous woman running in slow motion from her lovely little bungalow to deliver to him an abruptly terminated kiss, he, after discovering a photograph of the same lovely little bungalow pinned in the mirror of his new barber, suddenly gets a tardy urge to be curious of what’s out there. Armed with the photograph that points to the town of Murcia as his destination, some money saved from several years of not having anyone to spend it on, and a foolhardy reliance on his nightly dream, he leaves his job, his apartment, his entire life in Manila to pursue the promise of the pictured house and the girl of his dreams who resides therein.
Matti’s stylized depiction of urban working class ennui, from the forlornness of his shared office space to the stark ordinariness of his bachelor’s hovel, turns the first half of the film into an unexpected comedy of sorts. His camera is unusually reserved, settling at showcasing Gaston’s distinctly characterless mug as the center of the action, or in this film’s case, inaction. His editing here is particularly patient, allowing the humor to seep through the cracks opened by the depicted idleness and boredom. It is probably the closest thing a Filipino director has come to emulating the cold and comfortless comedies of Norwegian auteur Aki Kaurismaki, whose most popular works involve people so desolate, they barely exist. Gaston complements Matti’s careful and precise direction with a performance that is so subtle, so slight, that it feels like he’d disappear from the picture and blend into the background. That actually happens; as when he’s invited to his neighbors’ nightly drinking sprees, he becomes a silent observer while his drinking buddies converse about life and women, and Matti’s camera jumps from one intoxicated face to another, to one bottle of beer to another, to one side dish to another, before settling on his morose face. Gaston’s is selflessly un-flashy performance of a role that would have any other actor diminish with overacting.
Murcia, a town not unlike any other provincial town in the country, becomes the setting of Leo’s titular metaphoric arrival. A sequence of events, starting with his expected encounter with the house of his recurring dreams and continuing with a momentary disappointment by the fact that the house’s female resident does not look like the vixen in his dream and later on, a realization that he has fallen deeply in love, pushes him to discard decades’ worth of insecurities and reprehensions. Leo’s delayed coming-of-age could have been utterly lovely. The fact that Leo is more than your traditional late bloomer, having only fully experienced the simple charms of living only in midlife, should have turned this tale into something more than charming, something more humorous, something more than clever. This is because Leo’s story is basically my story and the story of almost everyone I know who have delayed personal passions just to be in the middle of the rat race. The Arrival should not have been personal only to Matti but also to his intended audience. It had the opportunity to break hearts and change lives but it settled with displaying pretty pictures in cadence with pretty songs and melodies and earning a few chuckles out of vapid display of Filipino machismo in the midst of an abundant supply of alcohol.
Perhaps that is exactly the problem. The film is too organic, with Matti generously indulging his actors’ every impromptu conversation, every cracked joke, and every whimsical thought, resulting in a picture that takes too long to say what it wants to say. At best, The Arrival is an intriguing patchwork. It is fun. It is hip. It is melodic and at times, touching. It is just not as tightly weaved together that it is inevitable to appreciate it better in parts than as a whole. That said, The Arrival, while a welcome departure for a director who has told too many stories under the forced guidance of moneyed producers, is hardly the masterwork one expects from an expert craftsman who has now the opportunity to stretch his creativity beyond the borders of what will sell in the market. Notwithstanding my problems with the film, I sincerely wish this one sells and proves a point. There’s a lot more to Matti and this imperfect departure is just the beginning of something I hope is wonderful.
(First published in Philippine Free Press, 26 December 2009)