Review by Frank Plowright
It’s not a great start to a graphic novel when there’s a tipped in page providing the dialogue that’s somehow been omitted when the book was printed. At least it’s there, but then it’s labelled page 18 for a book without page numbers. It’s the eighteenth page counting from the first page of the book, rather than being the eighteenth story page. First impressions don’t often lie, but this is one of those examples, so cut Arnold Arre some slack, as productions errors aren’t his fault.
Halina Filipina starts as if it’s going to be a wacky feelgood romcom, and while there are funny moments, that’s not at all what Arre has in mind as it hits some dark places. Unconventionally, that tipped in page from early in the story features the two lead characters meeting for the second time. We see their first encounter well into the book, where it has a greater impact. Halina Mitchell’s Filipino mother is long dead, but she’s never visited her mother’s homeland, and when having doubts about her relationship seems a good time to put that right. Cris is an overweight film critic in Manilla, not having much luck either raising his profile or getting paid, yet he’s good-natured and entertaining, which goes a long way. An average opening chapter gives way to a glorious driving scene during which Arre conceives a heartbreaking story of how Cris’ grandparents met. It’s followed by a great scene in which he explains how to construct an entire sentence in Tagalog using just the word “ba”. If you’re not hooked by that point, then it’s not going to happen.
Loose, expressive cartooning is the order of the day, yet without skimping on detail. Arre immerses his audience in the feel of Manila. He can’t give you the noise, but it’s just about the only missing element, and along the way he provides a subtle crash course in Filipino culture. You’ll want to hear the songs and see the movies. Some of them at least, as Cris’ job enables Arre to provide some withering criticism, and his faked Zaldy and Meldy show is hilarious, but the way he works in the great pop of ‘Torpedo’ by Eraserheads is clever.
Cris is exceptionally well portrayed. He’s head over heels in love, but his track record’s not great and he takes slight knockbacks, miscommunications and missed communications very badly. However, despite behaving poorly at times, Arre pulls off the clever trick of ensuring Cris remains sympathetic. A nice device used several times is his not being able to see an uncomfortable moment through to the end. Will that eventually prove his downfall?
Arre’s afterword notes he completed an original version of Halina Filipina in 2002, having produced it rapidly to contrast his other work. He then shelved it for many years until the response to his showing pages during a lecture made him consider reworking it. We should be very grateful. It’s still set in the 1990s, charming and true to life with many engaging diversions. You’re never too old for a bit of romance.