The woman who left was like she never left

Juaniyo Arcellana - The Philippine Star

Film review: Ang Babaeng Humayo

MANILA, Philippines – A new Lav Diaz film has over the years become an occasion for celebration as well as a renewed debate on the aesthetics and philosophy of cinema. It becomes something of a cultural event even before it has won an award or citation in most likely a foreign film festival, and when the good news makes the front pages, Diaz’s countrymen can only read in awe and wonder at the latest coup of one of our modern-day auteurs.

That Ang Babaeng Humayo won the top prize Golden Lion in the Venice Film Festival should be no surprise for followers of the director’s work, as each of his films seems to be subtly and inexorably building up toward the next, and before you know it, the wave hits you and the viewer is left in the wasteland of his subconscious, picking up the black-and-white pieces of a fragmented and disjointed history. The audience like God sees the truth but waits; the more you ignore Diaz’s films, the closer they get.

It begins in the women’s correctional with longtime convict Horacia Somorostro (Charo Santos) at hard labor with her fellow inmates, and where she is the institution’s resident teacher and storyteller. She tells her listeners the tale of being stuck in a tower, with no mirrors and barely any windows, a stifling existence. She eventually earns pardon after another convict Petra (Shamaine Centenera) confesses to the crime Horacia has been accused of, and for which she has been wrongly jailed for 30 years.

What follows is the gist of The Woman Who Left, as the Santos  character plots revenge against the man who framed her, while trying to reconnect with her two children and always in a quandary whether to carry out bloody justice, in the process meeting an assortment of characters in a stark desolate town (shot in Santos’ hometown of Mindoro) straight out of a Russian novel: John Lloyd Cruz as the transvestite Hollanda out to die in a strange place and trying to do one last good deed; the hunchback balut vendor played by Nonie Buencamino whose comic presence provides some levity like Mailes Kanapi did in Mula Sa Kung Ano Ang Noon, and who reminded so much of Soliman Cruz still in rehab a step ahead of the death squads; even the actress who plays the bag lady Mameng forever warning Horacia of the many demons around, especially in church.

Michael de Mesa as the sullen kontrabida Rodrigo Trinidad is in his element, and the audience can only guess how he will get his comeuppance in justice’s roundabout way, through the karmic wheel of irony and shifting fates.

And when the Mameng character warns, “Mga demonyo, mga demonyo, puro sila mga demonyo,” we can only look more closely at the screen’s unfolding beautiful circles of hell perhaps representing a parable for our dark times, and a touch of the lead character’s kindness that becomes a seed of so-called redemption.

Truth is that through the years we are getting a comprehensive overview of the director’s philosophy of cinema, how time is immaterial and film can be made out of the box, effectively freeing the viewer’s imagination. In Babaeng Humayo, film becomes more than dream and reverie, and because it changes our way of viewing cinema it then changes our perception of the world as well.

That Santos retired from the corporate world to do the film with Diaz is a subplot in itself; but would it not be just as correct to say that she came out of retirement as an actress to return to doing what she loves best. Dating back to Mike de Leon’s Itim with the walang kupas Tommy Abuel, it’s like Ms. Santos never left.

And as for Diaz now in Harvard for an eight-month residency, we can only guess what he has next up his tattooed sleeve. Another Batang West Side? A remake of Butterflies Have No Memories? A documentary on long lost Cruz beside that of the late painter Dante Perez’s? After the Silver Bear for Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis last February and the Golden Lion for Humayo, the director needs one more beast to complete the trilogy. Fall, winter, spring and a toast of Boston lager.

(Ang Babaeng Humayo will have its Philippine premiere at UP Town Center on Sept 27.)

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