Filipina actor, TV star, reality show host and social media queen Judy Ann Santos turns in a de-glammed, gently anguished, remarkably sympathetic performance in “Mindanao,” the latest title from prolific Filipino director Brillante Mendoza. Her watchability, however, comes despite a storytelling approach that is undercut by several unconvincing directorial decisions — chief among them the insertion of animated interludes that outline an only tangentially illuminating story of the princes and dragons who, legend has it, used to roam the eponymous region.
Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippine archipelago, has a troubled recent history beset by decades of conflict, and the 2017 declaration of island-wide martial law still stands. But despite a contextualizing opening note to that effect, it’s difficult to discern if there’s a political or social point Mendoza is trying to make; commentary about this fraught situation takes a deep back seat to the maudlin and manipulative main storyline, which deals with the slow death of a young child from aggressive brain cancer.
Saima (Santos) is bringing her sick daughter Aisa (Yuna Tangog) to a hospital some distance from their home. Traveling by bus, she is also bringing a cooler box of precious medicine, and in the first of the film’s panicky moments, the box is indicated by a sniffer dog at a military roadblock, and she’s ordered to open it, despite protestations that the medicine will expire if exposed to air. It’s only when Saima identifies herself as the wife of a soldier of rank that the suspicious guards let the issue drop. Already here, it’s not quite clear if Saima, and by inference other civilians like her, is the victim of Filipino militarism or its beneficiary — a fuzziness of focus that never really resolves.
Much more obvious, however, is the solidarity that Saima encounters at the forebodingly named House of Hope — a kind of hostel offering shared accommodations to the parents of very sick children so they can be close to the clinic. There, despite receiving news of the hopelessness of Aisa’s case as soon as she arrives, Saima finds some comfort among the other mothers and nurses.
Saima’s husband Malang (Allen Dizon) is a field medic largely unavailable by telephone when Saima calls him with increasingly desperate updates on Aisa’s wellbeing, as he’s deployed somewhere in the densely forested interior and seeing quite a bit of action. Here, too, Mendoza makes the strange choice of keeping the infrequent scenes of soldiering, well-mounted as they are, almost entirely context-free. The only direct correlation between Malang’s experience of conflict and Saima’s own battles comes when he contrives to have Malang cradle a dying comrade at roughly the same time Saima is prostrating herself across the tiny form of their dying child.
Less literally, but also less successfully, Honee Alipio’s clumsy screenplay braids in a fanciful third strand of action. This is the overwrought children’s bedtime story being related to Aisa by Saima about noble brother princes coming to the island to prevent the king’s daughter — also called Aisa — from being taken away by the monster to whom she had been promised at birth. The tale is narrated by Saima and depicted in childish crayon drawings, though what is presumably meant to be naively charming is made garish by the crudely computer-generated nature of their animation.
It is a bid for whimsy — or perhaps for moving, allegorical meaningfulness — that sits at awkward odds with the grimly realist and workmanlike presentation otherwise, with even Odyssey Flores’ cinematography feeling listless when not fixed on a closeup of Saima’s dignified, stoic suffering. At his most celebrated, such as with his divisive but Cannes best director-winning “Kinatay,” Mendoza’s blunt, unblinking style is an asset, provoking discomfort by forcing us to confront brutally upsetting realities (“Kinatay’s” English title is “Butchered” and features one of the most mercilessly drawn-out onscreen murders in memory). But this same lack of subtlety hobbles the more delicate and allusive film that “Mindanao,” with its tripartite structure and folk-tale references, wants to be. Despite Santos’ best efforts, there is little of substance to be gained from such mechanistic emotional pummeling except the unstartling observations that war is hell and childhood cancer is arbitrary, devastating and unjust, and there exists no fairy tale that can make sense of either.