Saturday, December 28, 2019

Mindanao

♣♣♣♣/♣♣♣♣♣

Saima Datupalo (Judy Ann Santos) battles a lot of demons on a daily basis, most of the time on her own. Her young daughter Aisa (Yuna Tangog) is afflicted with cancer and taking care of the 6-year-old child is not an easy task given the financial constraints and considering how they must traverse some war-torn areas of Mindanao just to reach the hospital and shelter assisting them in Davao. Her husband Malang (Allen Dizon) is a combat medic often deployed to battle areas in the south. Faced with both sickness and strife, Saima tries to lend a semblance of normalcy to her ill child’s life by narrating her favorite folklore, the legend of Rajah Sulayman and Rajah Indara Patra: two brothers who swear to protect Lanao from the attacks of two dragons that won’t stop until they lay waste to the entire land.

Santos has been acting since she was a kid, mostly in soap operas on TV where she is always the hapless barrio lass whose life is made miserable by her bored archenemies. You’d like to think that she has long graduated from such roles. After all, isn’t she in her 40’s now? At first glance, Mindanao seems to be a mere continuation of that stereotype of her: the suffering mademoiselle life always tends to shit on. But then again, the small and big screens differ based on many factors, and this material offers something new, for her at least.

Santos has had decades of practice to perfect the damsel in distress narrative. The good thing about Mindanao is that despite the gloomy premise and that lingering feeling that none of this will end well, the story gives her enough room to showcase her maturity not just as an actress but also as a person. With a family of her own and now a mother of three, Santos gets to focus more on subtlety, paving the way for a nuanced performance and giving justice to the role she is entrusted with. Saima is a fighter after all, because unlike in Santos' teleseryes, nobody will save her here aside from herself, and that's just cathartic to witness.

Perhaps the same can be argued for Dizon, but his character is more of a supporting role given the lack of screen time. If anything, Mindanao is Saima’s story. More than her daughter’s or her husband’s. More than Mindanao’s. And Santos does not disappoint because she carries the film with just the right amount of gravitas, without the need for hysterics or grandstanding, yet delivering the intended emotional punch to stir up a poignant reaction from her audience. Does this mean that this film is all tedious melodrama, then?

Well, that's where folklore comes in. As Saima distracts her daughter and herself from the depressing reality of their daily lives, she breathes life to the cultural identity of the region through her colorful narrations. Onscreen, this is rendered through colorful animation made to look like Crayola drawings that fit the imaginative perspective of a child. Despite the seemingly juvenile presentation, the folktale offers an apt metaphorical backgrounder regarding the sociocultural conflicts persisting in the region up to this day.

Presented in a simplified manner that even a child can grasp with ease, real life and fiction are blended through parallelisms in both storylines. Saima’s own dragons are the twin dilemma of her daughter’s terminal illness as well as the societal ills of her very homeland. In effect, symbolism is not lost in the storytelling despite the interplay between the characters’ many tragedies. In any case, the film is difficult to watch at Christmas time when moviegoers prefer leave-your-brain-at-the-door comedies instead of scathing social commentaries that tackle the very realities they are trying to escape from.

But we already know how the Metro Manila Film Festival operates. This year, Mindanao just happened to be the token socially relevant feature meant to justify the festival’s raison d’être. In this regard, it does not disappoint. With great acting and a fresh take on a tired storyline, it’s the kind of feature that is already a success story on its own by merely existing alongside rehashed film fest fodder. Despite its lackluster performance at the tills, it surely found its target audience, and those people are more or less satisfied with what they’ve seen.

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