With this film, actor Cesar Montano establishes himself as the best contemporary Filipino actor, and director Marilou Diaz-Abaya establishes herself as the best contemporary Filipino director. The two of them working together on a movie means only one thing: the movie will be awesome (as the movie Jose Rizal made in 1998 demonstrates). This time they tackle the difficult subject of the ongoing war between the Muslims and the Christians in Mindanao.
The story begins in the summer of 2000. Philippines President Joseph Estrada (a.k.a. Erap) has declared an all-out war against the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) on the island of Mindanao. Fatima, the wife of Ahmad, and her family are sleeping in their nipa hut when suddenly they hear gunfire close at hand. A group of armed men is attacking their village. They try to get down on the floor to hide but a stray bullet enters the house and kills Fatima's young son. It is not clear who the marauders are. They do not appear to be in uniform. Perhaps they are CAFGU's (Citizens Armed Forces Geographic Units) or perhaps they are Christian vigilantes. It doesn't much matter. Fatima's son is dead.
Ahmad, who is working as a doctor at a hospital in Manila, receives a midnight phone call telling him the bad news. He arrives on the next plane and is stunned to see that his village has been burnt to the ground. He holds the body of his dead son in his arms and sobs uncontrollably. Ahmad's brother arrives. He is a military officer in the MILF and he blames Ahmad for what happened to Ahmad's son. If only Ahmad had been home with his family he could have protected them from the marauding Christians. Instead, he was working in Manila helping to heal these very same Christians who are their enemies. Ahmad argues that bloodshed won't solve anything, that the Muslims (or Moros as the movie calls them) must sit down with the Christians and peacefully discuss the problems between them. Ahmad plans to evacuate his family to Manila but his family refuses to go with him.
What will the future hold for Ahmad and his family? No one knows but one thing is obvious: it is no longer safe where they are. The entire village packs up what remains of their belongings and hits the road. They have become war refugees. They decide to go to a nearby village where a mosque is located. Perhaps the imam (i.e., Muslim religious leader) of the mosque can provide some guidance. When they arrive they find that they are not the only refugees. Dozens of Muslim families have been displaced by the fighting and have sought shelter there. Some of them are injured and Ahmad, being a trained doctor, does what he can to help them. But without medicine and surgical equipment what he can do is quite limited.
In the meantime, Ahmad's brother and Rashid stroll about a Christian market in a city. Rashid is the teenage son of Ahmad's brother. He is carrying a package wrapped in cardboard. He nonchalantly places it near one of the street vendor's stalls and walks away. A few minutes later the bomb explodes killing dozens of people and causing sheer panic. In the panic, Francis, a young Christian boy, gets separated from his family and somehow ends up on a bus. Also on the bus is Rashid who is hoping no one saw him plant the bomb. A few miles outside of town the bus is pulled over at an AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) checkpoint. Rashid, thinking they are on to him, panics and jumps off the bus. Pandemonium ensues and the AFP soldiers pursue him firing shots at him. Somehow Francis ends up running after Rashid. When he catches up to him Rashid tells him to go home. Francis says that he wants to be friends. Rashid replies that he can never be his friend because Francis is a Christian and Rashid is a Muslim. Francis tags along after Rashid anyway.
Ahmad finds the local imam (whom he addresses as Datu) and tries to get guidance on his situation. Ahmad still seeks to find a peaceful way out of their situation but the imam tells him that the Muslims have always had to fight for their rights. Rashid with Francis trailing along eventually makes it to the village where Ahmad greets him. For some reason Ahmad grows attached to Francis even though he is a Christian kid. Perhaps it is because he's the same age as his son was before he was killed.
Soon a convoy of AFP soldiers arrives in the village to look for contraband weapons. They suspect that the villagers have been supplying weapons and aid to the MILF (this reminded me a lot of the Vietnam War where American patrols would enter a village suspecting it of aiding the Viet Cong). The soldiers can't find any weapons and so the commander gathers the people together and addresses them. He tells them that they are all Filipinos, that they shouldn't fight against their own country. Then he tells them that their village is not safe, if any people want, the AFP soldiers can escort them to a relocation camp where they will be safe. Few people trust the soldiers but Francis raises his hand and volunteers to be relocated. Ahmad reluctantly agrees to accompany him thinking that he is now his responsibility. A few other villagers also agree to go.
After leaving the village the AFP convoy is traveling down a road with the Muslims who have agreed to be relocated sitting in the backs of the trucks. All of a sudden the convoy is ambushed by MILF guerillas. An intense firefight ensues with the refugees scattering into the nearby forest. Nearly all the AFP soldiers in the convoy have been killed. Ahmad and Francis manage to make it back to the village and tell the news of the ambush. Now they are in real trouble. The AFP will naturally assume that the village set up their soldiers. Everyone in the town must flee but the imam refuses to leave. Ahmad becomes the new leader of the group and he must lead a group of mostly women and children through rugged terrain to safety. But where is safety? The entire province is now a war zone.
After hiking for several days the group enters a small village that has been the site of a massacre. Dead bodies are strewn everywhere. Who could have perpetrated such atrocities? Just then Ahmad hears two men talking in a nearby shack. They appear to be two AFP soldiers and they are drunk. They are laughing about all the Muslims they have just murdered. In a rage Ahmad approaches the two men silently. You should see Cesar Montano's eyes during this scene! He takes out his pistol and shoots both men at point blank range. Now he has done it. Ahmad is a doctor, sworn to uphold the Hippocratic Oath and do no harm, but he has just killed two men in cold blood. He breaks down sobbing to his wife. What has he become?
The group moves on. Ahmad's mother, who is elderly, is exhausted and cannot walk. They rig up a stretcher to carry her but she becomes progressively worse. Eventually she dies and yet another senseless tragedy is added to the fruits of the current war. The group stops near a river and a boat arrives carrying MILF soldiers. Ahmad's brother is on it. When he hears the news about his mother's death he tells Ahmad not to worry, that it is Allah's will.
The MILF decides to stage a major ambush of an AFP column traveling along a nearby highway. Unfortunately, Ahmad's group gets caught in the crossfire. The battle scenes are intense. There is mass confusion with both sides firing at anything that moves in the jungle. How can you find the enemy when you can't see five feet in front of you? The AFP troops push the MILF fighters back into the jungle but soon the battle deteriorates into every man for himself. The commander of the AFP troops is captured by the MILF and Ahmad's brother is about to shoot him when Ahmad intervenes to spare his life. It is the same lieutenant who gave the speech at the village. Somehow he managed to survive the previous ambush.
The AFP forces, knowing that their commander has been captured, wait until night to stage a rescue mission. All Hell breaks loose with the battle raging all around. Francis, seeing his friend Rashid run off to join the battle, follows him. Ahmad shouts for him to come back but it's no use. Ahmad runs after Francis and takes a bullet in the chest. The AFP lieutenant is rescued by his troops and the AFP forces withdraw. The battle winds down. Ahmad is evacuated to a nearby building but there is nothing his friends and family can do for him. As the life drains away from his body he imagines that his little boy is still alive and talking to him. Then he dies. This brought more than a few tears to my eyes.
Filipino movies are not known for their intensity but this movie is as intense as it gets. The battle scenes in particular are as gripping as anything you will see in movies like Platoon (starring Charlie Sheen), Full Metal Jacket (starring Matthew Modine), etc., etc. I have often wondered why groups like the Abu Sayyaf are so vicious. This movie gave me my answer. It tells the story of the flip side of the coin: how the Muslims have been brutalized and pushed around by the Christians on Mindanao for decades. It must have taken great courage for the director to make a movie which portrays Christians as the bad guys in a country which is predominantly Christian. Cesar Montano is entirely convincing as a Muslim and he gives a powerful performance as a man who strives for peace amid the chaos of war. I give this movie my highest rating, five stars.