Perhaps all forms of storytelling are, in essence, also forms of travelling. Even when a story does not, literally, take us to unfamiliar places, it will always at least transport us, figuratively, to unfamiliar situations. Every story that introduces us to new characters is a visit to the home of strangers; the most profound tales are expeditions to the unlit depths of human hearts and minds.
Sakaling Hindi Makarating, then, is twice a travel film, because it pairs the figurative journey of its characters with the premise of a literal voyage. Far from being the typical touring blockbuster, which treks through various locations purely for spectacle, Sakaling Hindi Makarating distills the beauty from each of its destinations, then uses this essence to chart its characters’ arcs in consequential ways. By its end, it feels almost regretful that one regular feature film can accommodate only so many settings, while keeping the itinerary meaningful.
Warning: this discussion shares extensive details of the film’s plot and other elements, or ‘spoilers’; this was written mainly for those who have seen the movie.
Sakaling Hindi Makarating (originally translated literally as ‘In Case They Don’t Arrive’, but now bears the English title ‘The Amazing Journey of the Letters’) begins with the character of Cielo (played by Alessandra De Rossi). For a while it is nothing more than this brokenhearted woman’s journey through the fragmented islands of the Philippine archipelago. Her loneliness means that she wakes up on a bare mattress in a sparse apartment, her belongings still sitting unpacked in boxes, and a glass of wine on the floor signifying an unpleasant night spent trying, unsuccessfully, to forget certain memories. The Cielo at the start of the story, in other words, is a dysfunctional, wasting person.
But the person who wakes her up, the gentlemanly, well-intentioned Paul (Pepe Herrera), happens to be the first among many kind strangers she encounters on her journey of recovery. After a brief exchange in which the enthusiastic Paul introduces himself to his new but disinterested neighbor Cielo, he invites her to coffee. We expect the next scene to transport Cielo and Paul to some fine café, but the film cuts to the same location, the neighbors’ doorsteps—only with our characters sitting down now, cups of coffee in hand. The offering of a beverage seems to be a matter of great significance for Paul. As they talk, with Cielo opening up about the 11-year relationship recently terminated by her now-ex-fiancé Mark (Jay Gonzaga), the wall that securely separates their apartment units continue to guard the personal space between the new friends.
They talk about the postcards Cielo has been receiving, seemingly addressed to her (‘C’), signed by a mysterious ‘M’, which Cielo naturally suspects to be Mark, and on which are written some beautiful verses about yearning.
Tama ka, iba ang biyahe kapag kaunti raw ang bitbit. Natutukoy mo agad kung ano ang hindi kailangan mo.
Kamusta ka na? Ikaw parin ang pinakamabigat kong dalahin.
(C, you were correct, it is easier to travel light. I now realize which things I should truly keep with me.
How are you? The thought of you is still my greatest burden. M.)
These postcards, and the way they speak to Cielo’s troubled heart, spark her journey in search of the sender.
Her first stop is Zamboanga in the south, and here she is immediately reminded by a kid, Aisha (Hiraya Plata), a fact of travelling: that what is fascinating for tourists is a mundane sight for locals. But Cielo is not just a tourist—she is sensitive enough to connect with people, not just observe them. She asks Aisha to teach her how to swim, at which Aisha comments that here in her city, everyone learns to swim before they learn to fear water; take the plunge before fear grips you, in other words, as if she were talking about heartaches.
Aisha first notices Cielo through her smartphone, which Cielo nonchalantly swaps with Aisha’s humble, basic phone, in exchange for her swimming tutorial service. This competition of modern technology with more essential, more traditional ways of communicating is a recurring theme in Sakaling Hindi Makarating; before she left her apartment in Quezon City, Cielo instructed Paul to strictly keep in touch through mail only. Much later in Batanes, another character would express an opposite view on old-fashioned communications.
The supposed highlight of Cielo’s Zamboanga tour proves to be the film’s low point: Cielo asks Aisha to bring her to the vintas, but the launch of the colorful boats, a scene replete with a cheering crowd, falls flat. Rather than feel rousing, the staged scene comes through as contrived. (It is further distracting that the camera catches dust in the low-angle shot of the vinta regatta. This flaw stands out, in a film that otherwise immaculately frames the beauty of every place it visits, through a cinematography that distills the vibrancy of our archipelago.) Fortunately, Sakaling Hindi Makarating takes a quieter approach to travelling for the rest of its itinerary. When the film assumes a serene, contemplative attitude in its journey, that is when it arrives at a most-fulfilling appreciation of its destinations, and at the same time reflect what travel is like in real life for many people—full of hushed moments.
At Cielo’s next layover, in Siquijor, she finds not vampires but friendly people who rents her a motorcycle and teaches her how to ride it. While walking on a roadside—and while the cinematographer proves to us that even a field of windswept coconut trees can look gorgeous on film—Cielo pauses to change her footwear to a pair of white sneakers.
Call it over-reading or an abuse of film language, but these white sneakers, like the wall between Cielo and Paul’s apartments, seem to foreshadow the relationship between her and the next character she meets, Manuel (JC Santos). On board the ferry to Marinduque where Cielo meets him, the camera curiously shows only his feet at first, or, more precisely, his dark leather shoes. White sneakers versus dark leathers: of course, Manuel turns out to be only a foil, ultimately incompatible with Cielo, the romantic who misleads us to thinking that he’s the ‘M’ behind Cielo’s postcards when he suspiciously flirts with her. Alas, despite his pronouncements of his admirable commitment and loyalty, and in ironic contrast to his determination to stay in his home island despite having experienced a comfortable life in another country, he cannot stop Cielo from leaving. Cielo’s dalliance with Manuel provokes her to rethink her journey, and she moves on.
(A note on Manuel’s unnamed sister, played by Karen delos Reyes. Director/cinematographer/co-writer Ice Idanan says that when she wrote the film, she was careful to give each character his/her own life and story, independent of the character’s purpose in the story and relationship with the others. This is demonstrated by Paul, and Manuel, and especially the cast in Batanes, but no character teases us this way more than Manuel’s sister, who strikes a warm friendship in her brief time with Cielo, and whose meaningful, almost yearning expressions hint at a deep, untold history.)
Meanwhile, back in Quezon City, Paul gives glimpses of his own life. He is Cielo’s anchor to her home. He continues to forward the postcards to wherever she is; he continues to receive her handcrafted portraits of the people she meets. Outside his apartment, over a different kind of beverage (beer), he reveals his unrequited love for Cielo to his friend and co-teacher. At school, after teaching a class about the novel Great Expectations, another co-teacher, ‘Miss’ Sarah, drops by Paul’s station. While she invites him to dinner, she absently places her tumbler on his table—it may or may not have contained some beverage, perhaps coffee. But he respectfully declines the offer, refuses her advances, refuses to drop the formal “miss” as he addresses her. When she leaves, the camera turns to Paul’s laptop, opened to an airline’s website. His heart is already wandering, chasing someone, somewhere else.
Idyllic, ethereal islands
Somewhat shaken by her encounter on Marinduque, Cielo arrives back north in Quezon City. But at the bus terminal, she sees a bus destined further north. Perhaps reminded of her unfinished quest, she impulsively boards it. On the beaches of Ilocos, she reviews the postcards. The wind blows, she almost loses the cards; she breaks down in tears, tired of her journey, tired of life. The scene fades to black.
The film then cuts to an aerial shot of the grassy, windy islands of Batanes—and the best sequence of Sakaling Hindi Makarating begins.
Sol (Teri Malvar) is introduced along with her friend Benjie (Elijah Canlas) and her mother Mila (Lesley Lina). The film takes its time in revealing Sol as the sender of the postcards. The suspense builds on a slow burn, as we await the inevitable link back to Cielo’s story.
Sol finds the pack of poetic postcards one day, in the clutter of a room under renovation in her house. She thinks that the cryptically-signed cards might have been meant for her missing father, and that she might finally reach him by sending them to the written address in Quezon City, so she hides them from her mother who is reluctant to talk about Sol’s father; then she calls and conspires with Benjie to drop off one card every two weeks at the post office. When months pass without them receiving a reply, she realizes her folly—she did not care to write a return address on the cards! She runs to the edge of the scenic cliffs at Tinyan, and throws away the rest of the cards in frustration. After she calms down, she tells Benjie, what a waste of postage money, she should just have purchased cellphone credits with it instead—as if to say what a pointless exercise it is to send old-fashioned letters, in the era of modern, instant, electronic communication.
The filmmakers behind Sakaling Hindi Makarating claim they experimented with different edits, including some versions where the Batanes storyline is interspersed with the earlier portions of Cielo’s journey. It was certainly wise that the final cut kept the Batanes storyline isolated, not only because of the aforementioned suspense-building, but also because the privileged continuity of the sequence enhances the charm of its setting.
Batanes boasts of a distinct, mythical place in the pantheon of Philippine travel destinations. It exists in many Filipinos’ imagination as the remote northern islands where the wind blows in from the sea, over the grass of rolling hills. There is an ethereal, mystical, yet homely sense to the place, which is perfectly captured in the film. Its spirit is personified by the innocent, playful Sol, as well as by her soft-mannered mother. It permeates their home, the picturesque Country Lodge Inn, a colorful, quaint abode. (A copy of the novel Great Expectations lies on a shelf in the lodge.)
There is, of course, more to the island province in reality than this idyllic, tourist-friendly image, but Sakaling Hindi Makarating is not a documentary, it has no obligation to portray the complexities of a particular location. (The movie portrays rural life as an effortless, charming way of living, but the film’s cast once shared about the difficulties staying in an island where the supply of electricity shuts down after sunset.) The film takes the dual journey of a literal voyage and the figurative pilgrimage of a healing heart; in similar multidimensional fashion, it gives justice to its flaunting of spectacular locations by framing them with a well-told story.
This is further reason that it was wise to conserve the Batanes story as one sequence. It reinforces the arc of the journey: when it comes to this part of the film, there is a palpable sense that we have arrived at the summit of the tale, that Cielo is about to find the answers she has been seeking for a long time.
And when Cielo—the sky—and Sol—the sun—meet, all the pieces fall into place. There is solace in the final discovery of the postcards’ sender, and Cielo’s heartbreak over her fiancé is matched, or maybe exceeded, by Sol’s longing for the father she has never met. When Cielo meets Mila (the latter’s name is revealed only at this point), she quietly comes to understand the person who was moved by deep heartbreak to craft such sorrowful cards. Her own loss is placed in perspective.
Cielo departs, but not before purposefully leaving behind a map marked with the memories of her journey. With this artifact, Mila is moved to at last open up to Sol about her father, a traveler named Carlos who promised Mila the world but left her only with a child. And we get that priceless line, when Mila says she has realized that, indeed, Sol means all the world to her now.
The emboldened Cielo, like Sol, visits the cliffs of Tinyan, and tosses out her engagement ring, her final act of moving on. The sea swallows the ring as it did the postcards—objects both that used to anchor people to tragic pasts.
Finally, the film ends with counterpart shots. In Quezon City, Paul leaves the apartment, riding off on his motorcycle, just missing a delivery from the mailman. The fresh letter is from Cielo, who says that sakaling hindi makarating, it does not matter, because she’s coming home now, and she is excited to tell all about her discoveries. The title card appears, but one more shot follows, of Cielo also riding on a motorcycle on a highway. (How convenient, that she learned how to ride a motorcycle in Siquijor.) She rides off, into a metaphorical sunset, at last truly free from the pains of her once-broken heart.
Ice Idanan says about Sakaling Hindi Makarating: “The main theme of the film is journeying and the story commits to this by using devices that go through an adventure of their own—sending postcards and traveling.” These things may mean different things to different characters in the story, but perhaps a common theme they prove is the universality of loneliness, and longing, and our attempts at bridging these gaps through tangible pieces of communication and the thrill of exploration.
If we were to summarize the arcs traced by the characters of the film, it is that they all embark on a search for something missing or lost in their lives, but they all find endings or closure in roundabout ways.
Cielo searches for the sender of the postcards, expecting to find her soulmate, but finds the courage to instead start a new chapter in her life. Sol seeks her father, and she hears the story she has always wanted to hear from her mother, but this would not have happened without the arrival of a stranger. Paul wishes to be closer to his friend and neighbor, but she wanders and drifts farther away, and he becomes her sole, delicate link to the place she can call home. And Manuel commits to his own home, chooses to stay in place out of loyalty, but he has to learn the hard way that not all the visitors who come his way are of similar persuasions, nor of similar desires.
The course taken by Sakaling Hindi Makarating should indeed be familiar enough; many stories have taken this path before. It is, by now, a well-worn masterplot. We can say though, at least, that this particular film’s unique contribution is the coloring of this story with the imprint of our country’s localities.
All stories are a form of travel, true, but it is not always vividly gorgeous like this.
Credit goes to The Knee-Jerk Critic, thekneejerkcritic.wordpress.com, for the insight about Cielo and Sol’s names.
All images in this article are screen-captures from the film’s trailer; their inclusion here are intended to be within fair-use provisions.