September 30, 2016
"Ang Babaeng Humayo" (English title: The Woman Who Left") opens in theaters this week with much advanced fanfare. This latest film by award-winning Filipino auteur Lav Diaz had just recently (only 20 days ago) won the coveted Golden Lion award for Best Picture at the historically prestigious 73rd Venice International Film Festival. Of course, this award automatically made this film a must-watch. The anticipation of Filipino cineastes for this film is understandably reached a fever-pitch.
The titular woman is Horacia Somorostro (Charo Santos), a former school teacher who had been incarcerated for a crime of murder she never committed. When the real killer Petra (Shamaine Buencamino) unexpectedly confessed to the crime, Horacia was released after serving 30 long years. With her husband dead, son missing and daughter apathetic, Horacia decided to track down and claim revenge on Rodrigo Trinidad (Michael de Mesa), a spurned former suitor whose hatred made him frame her for the crime all those years ago.
In the process, Horacia relocated herself to Mindoro and reinvented herself as a virtuous church-going owner of a roadside eatery by day, and a tough-talking, street-smart tomboy by night. She made friends with three disparate characters whom she thought could help her with her vengeful quest. Mameng (Jean Judith Javier) was a mentally-disturbed vagrant at the church. Kuba (Nonie Buencamino) was a hunchback balut vendor who also had a violent past. Her most enigmatic new acquaintance was Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz), an odd and lonely epileptic transvestite who hated his life.
This is the first film of Ms. Charo Santos since "Esperanza" back in 1999. This is her first film since she stepped down as chief honcho of the ABS-CBN Corporation. While Ms. Santos transformed herself into a hardened ex-con (with tattoos on her arms!), her regal bearing was still evident in many scenes. Her scenes as the tomboyish Renata clearly channeled the iconic action star Fernando Poe Jr., which was quite delightful to watch.
This role was also very physically demanding from a woman of her age. She had to squat or kneel down on the floor for a long time then stand up. She also had to pull a much heavier body across the floor and beat up a heavyweight bully. I could feel the strain on her knees and back in these scenes, but Ms. Santos gave it her all. Her distinctive voice over her letter-writing and story-telling scenes do tend to remind us of her long-time stint as the host of "Maalala Mo Kaya" drama anthology on television.
This film was also a very risky but scene-stealing turn for mainstream actor and box-office king John Lloyd Cruz. Cruz was rather awkward-looking wearing a mini-skirt and shoes with five-inch heels, but his performance as the damaged Hollanda was truly riveting. That sweet and twirly little dance he did on the street was mesmerizing. He was fearlessly unashamed as he portrayed a delicate victim struggling to recover from brutal physical and sexual mauling. He was hilariously off-key as he belted out his version of "Sunrise, Sunset" but he did not care. His final interrogation scene was quiet but intense, as emphasized by the visibly surprised reaction of the lady sitting beside him at the table.
This was a more accessible Lav Diaz work being just under four hours. It had a clear-cut and concrete story line about social injustice, the initial premise of which was inspired by Leo Tolstoi's short story entitled "God Sees the Truth But Waits". Trademark Lav Diaz hallmarks of long cinema were still there to frustrate less patient viewers, like tracking characters as they slowly walk from one point to another, sit immobile on the curbside or aimlessly look through old stuff in the dark -- all of which did not really develop the plot. The black and white can be vividly elegant, but there were also poorly lit scenes we could only guess at what was happening in the shadows.
I think this film could probably have gone on for a few more hours if Diaz wanted to since there could still be some issues to explore, but he chose not to anymore. The final sequences from the shaky scene of Horacia walking on the beach to the blurred scene of Horacia and Kuba talking on the street, from the somber storytelling session under a waiting shed to those sheets of paper strewn on the streets of Quiapo -- these were all overtly expressive of Lav Diaz as an artist. Audiences are all challenged to think, interpret and analyze why he had to include that scene or why he showed it that way. This story could have been done as an outright revenge thriller, but in Lav Diaz's hands it became film art. 9/10.