Ahead of its Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) debut on Christmas Day, Brillante Mendoza’s “Mindanao” has already made waves internationally, with screenings from Busan to Tokyo and a best actress win for lead star Judy Ann Santos in Cairo.
The acting prize, Filipino moviegoers will find, is a well-deserved one for Santos who portrays Saima, a Muslim mother caring for her daughter with cancer.
Starring Allen Dizon as the soldier-husband of Saima, “Mindanao” also touches on the armed conflict in parts of the island, intercut with an animated retelling of the Mindanao folklore of warrior brothers Rajah and Sulayman.
The collaboration of Santos and Mendoza sees the fusion of two showbiz worlds, with the former being a mainstream superstar and the latter, a celebrated director known for his independent filmmaking.
Despite Santos’ decades-long background as a soap opera lead — she’s done it all, from shouting matches to superhero flight — the screen veteran manages here a fresh portrayal that’s especially moving in quiet moments that depict extreme emotions.
Long-time fans of Santos may be used to seeing her tackle big conflicts with big acting, as in her schizophrenic role in “FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano” or her iconic take on the titular half of “Mara Clara.” And while there’s no shortage of dramatic turns in “Mindanao” — the inclusion of terminal illness and war assure they come in succession — Santos goes instead for subtlety which makes for a more sincere performance.
With “Mindanao’s” cinematography akin to a documentary in some scenes, Santos’ portrayal of Saima becomes so real and intimate — and heart-wrenching in a key moment — that one forgets the actress is a superstar.
Dizon as the principled Malang and newcomer Yuna Tangog as the cancer-stricken Aisa are similarly affecting, and complement Santos in scenes they share.
The animation, satisfying in its mix of 3D and crayon drawings, is meant to illustrate parallels between the story of Aisa and her parents, and the adventures of Rajah and Sulayman. While seamless in the film’s first half, it starts to become a distraction when the emotional stakes get higher for Saima’s family.
Through and through, Santos is the strong glue that holds together “Mindanao” which, given its title, casts a net that’s not nearly large enough to capture the complex issues and diversity of the region.
That’s the technical, or geographic, aspect of it. What “Mindanao” captures, with literally flying colors, are the universal themes of motherhood, family, and loss — all human experiences regardless of faith or island.