Ang Babaeng Humayo (known internationally as The Woman Who Left) is Lav Diaz’s latest opus that is inspired by the Leo Tolstoy short story God Sees the Truth, But Waits.
The black and white film is set in 1997, a turbulent and tumultuous time in Philippine history, when a spate of kidnap-for-ransom incidents occurred, spurring many in government, media, and society to treat it as a major crisis.
A CHECKERED LIFE. In this milieu, Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio), an inmate at the Correctional Facility for Women, is released from prison after thirty years.
It is proven that she did not commit the crime she was accused of--and that her former lover, Rodrigo (Michael de Mesa), was the mastermind.
After three decades, she heads home to Balanga, Bataan. She finds nothing familiar and aims to exact revenge on Rodrigo, taking on another persona, even disguising herself as a tomboy.
Along the way, she meets Kuba (Nonie Buencamino), a hunchback balot vendor; Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz), an epileptic gay cross-dresser; Mameng (Jean Judith Javier), a taong grasa/mendicant; and Nena (Mayen Estanero), a cripple. They make for a band of misfits, so it seems.
Each of them, Horacia treats with kindness, as members of the family that she never had the chance to love fully. But director Lav Diaz by no means portrays Horacia as a saint--after all, she wants to take the life of the man who practically took 30 years of hers. And in an unexpected moment, her desperation leads her to a fit of rage and violence.
MANY LAYERS OF MEANING. This being a Lav Diaz film, it is a given that the movie is allegorical and lyrical.
The pace of the movie--a comparison cannot help but be drawn with his most recent internationally awarded work, Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery)--is much swifter.
Although the Charo Santos Concio-starrer is set in more modern and relatable times, it cannot be described simply as social realist. For it has its layers: the story of a woman wronged out for revenge; but also, of people struggling to make sense of their lives or simply to get by... all of these every day realities.
Then, there is the overarching statement(s) on Philippine history as cyclical--only the names and places change, but the situations are eerily familiar; Philippine society as stratified, where the rich get richer and the poor are left to wallow; on the fluidity of past and present, of time. Like any work of art, this obra by the auteur is open to many interpretations.
TECHNICAL ACHIEVEMENTS. Lav Diaz does multi-hyphenate duties: he is the film’s writer, director, cinematographer, and editor. The script is enchanting and hypnotizing. It is not so much like stepping into another world as taking your senses on a trip--where, though the eyes are dulled by the grayscale, all others are heightened, including the sensitivity to the unseen/invisible.
At one point, I wondered why no one recognized Horacia in the town where she presumably grew up, but this is a minor question in the grand scheme of things.
Not only the story but the script is engaging: Lav Diaz writes with the quill of a poet in deep Filipino, trying to touch the deepest recesses of the Filipino soul and psyche. The lead characters are engaging and relatable. None of them seem like shadow puppets on the wall.
Speaking of which, the cinematography is very deliberate. Chiaroscuro is putty in Lav Diaz’s hands. It is masterfully used as Horacia first finds out the ill fate of her family in a barely-adorned living room; then as she rummages with only a flashlight through piles and boxes in a small storage room.
The contrast of Charo framed by an open window, with the sunrise streaming in and obscuring her details--this scene, without dialogue and revealing little of her expression, speaks volumes.
The first scene where John Lloyd is revealed recalls the first appearance of Marlon Brando in the iconic Apocalypse Now: slow, deliberate, and loaded with angst. Much later in the movie, a seemingly out-of-focus shot reveals a rhyme and reason, when everything fades in the background and Horacia comes out clear in the foreground, off-center.
The play of light and dark and extended scenes also recalls that of legendary Mike de Leon’s Itim (1976), cinematography by Ely Cruz and Rody Lacap. Incidentally, that also starred Charo (who was still single at that time, and billed in the credits as Charo Santos).
The film is a “mere” 3 hours and 45 minutes--generally short for Lav Diaz. But there are some scenes that can still be shortened, if only to move the story more swiftly along. On the other hand, those who have sat through the director’s longer narratives will find this the least of their concerns.
The production design by Popo Diaz is meticulous, especially when it comes to using elements such as wall hangings that are typical in Filipino homes.
There is no musical score. The closest is ambient music at the seaside when Horacia walks through the tourist area, where there are shows and merrymaking. The all-too-familiar sounds of daily life, and sometimes deafening silences that are alien, provide a background that situates the story closer to the viewers.
STELLAR ACTING. The acting prowess of the lead characters leaves no room for doubt that Lav Diaz has masterfully gathered some of the most talented in one film.
Charo Santos Concio’s Horacia is perfection: understated in general, her painful wails are authentic and come from a place so deep it is scary to watch. Her expressions, the whole range of them, are authentic. It is not difficult to empathize with her character as she goes from convict, ex-convict, wronged woman, grieving wife and mother, and caring friend.
Her anguish as Horacia is real and palpable as she weeps for her husband and son, as she cries over the wasted years of her life.
With this role, John Lloyd cements his distinction as the most talented popular Philippine movie actor of his generation. He looks exactly as his role requires: a man dressed as a woman, who moves and tries to speak in a feminine way. He dances and sings while balancing on three-inch heels--a feat in itself. John Lloyd registers deep pain after a physical assault, but under the surface, he also shows a vulnerability that engages his entire person--not just his facial expression but also the angling of his body and the tone of his voice. His sorrow and pain are moving, but in a later scene where he is subjected to interrogation, his indignation, with very few lines, is the most chilling.
The two main characters have exceptional chemistry, in their fleeting interactions from first, then second meeting on the street--but captured well in a scene that feels like it was largely unscripted, when Horacia and Hollanda sing a few songs to each other.
Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino has a small but very powerful role. Her Petra is the closest in the story to a supporting actress to Horacia, and her guttural cries are razor-sharp.
Michael De Mesa veers away from playing Rodrigo as a caricature--he is portrayed not only as powerful but also mindful of his own flawed humanity.
Nonie Buencamino, as Horacia’s confidante Kuba, draws empathy as a man who labors for his family yet never gets beyond providing for their basic needs, the Filipino saying “isang kahig, isang tuka.”
BEYOND THE TEXT. The use of voice over narration by Charo’s character seems an amusing inside joke to those of us who know her as the host of ABS-CBN’s long-running TV show that has her reading letters with a similar cadence. In those moments, you can actually close your eyes and imagine her narrating for Maalaala Mo Kaya.
The film anchors itself in a particular year, 1997, when the deaths of international figures Princess Diana, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Gianni Versace happened in succession--locally, the infamous crime against the Chiong sisters of Cebu happened as well.
Yet, some elements, however minor, in the scenes felt out of place: modern car plates, signs with cellular phone numbers, and a backdrop of a show with “2016” clearly emblazoned on it. At first it could be attributed to details overlooked during filming.
However, as the movie unfolds and seeing the Quiapo Church, as it is at present, plays an integral role in the narrative--one cannot help but wonder if it is a visual style through which the viewer transcends the confines of time to relate past events with present ones.
Ang Babaeng Humayo won the Golden Lion at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival.
It is graded A unanimously by the Cinema Evaluation Board.
Produced by Cinema One Originals and Sine Olivia, the rated R-16 movie is currently being shown in Philippine cinemas nationwide.
Ed's Note: The 'PEP Review' section carries the views of individual reviewers, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the PEP editorial team.