‘Ang Babaeng Humayo’: No woman forgets her first Lav

Can the tragic story of Horacia, ‘The Woman Who Left,’ be told in two hours, like in a ‘normal’ movie? Of course. But it would be at the cost of those things that the committed, as well as the newly converted and the merely curious have come to expect of a Diaz film.

 

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Charo Santos is Horacia , “The Woman Who Left,” in this year’s Venice International Film Festival Best Picture, by Filipino director Lav Diaz.

By Emmie G. Velarde

“ANG Babaeng Humayo (The Woman Who Left)” is screening in commercial movie houses across the country. Given the history of Philippine alternative cinema, this is a mild miracle. The filmmakers have clearly done something right, on top of making yet another international winner.

After director/writer/editor Lav Diaz bagged the coveted (and I don’t say this recklessly) Golden Leopard two years ago in the 67th Locarno International Film Festival for “Mula Sa Kung Ano ang Noon (From What is Before),” the production team arrived home to apparent apathy. They took airport cabs, hand-lugging the trophy that must have weighed close to three kilos.

Diaz’s latest triumph, the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice IFF—the world’s oldest and one of the “Big Three” alongside Cannes and Berlin—hopefully fetched that same hardy team a more enthusiastic welcome. Otherwise, the speed with which the film made cineplex touchdown should probably make up for that.

The association with ABS-CBN’s chief of content Charo Santos and the network’s global marketing initiative, Cinema One Originals, has proven to be as fortunate in terms of exhibition opportunity as it was (reportedly) providential. As a fan and avowed friend of the indie community, I pray that virtually bringing the movie to audiences’ doors will translate to really reaching them.

I sat with a total of six others on “Humayo’s” first screening day at Robinsons Las Pinas. As far as I could tell, except for prudently timed trips to the restrooms, not one of us seven resolute braves quit till the very end. The movie is four hours long, one of Diaz’s shortest. We even stayed through the credits.

Skilled lead, trusty support

Las Pinas is not all that far from traditionally indie movie-friendlier Makati, and maybe the weekend will yield bigger crowds. Besides, “Humayo” is more accessible than many of Diaz’s other works, not just on account of its comparative brevity:

There’s skilled actress Santos in the title role, plus a trusty support cast led by John Lloyd Cruz, Michael de Mesa, Nonie and Shamaine Buencamino, and Mae Paner—tossing moviegoer alienation by anonymity out of the usual sad equation for local indies that make it to mainstream venues.

Can the story of this tragic woman Horacia be told in two hours like in “normal” movies? Of course. But it would be at the cost of those things that committed viewers, as well as the newly converted and the merely curious have come to expect of every Diaz oeuvre.

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The screen as light-and-shadow canvas, a Diaz signature.

For one, his celebrated framing and lighting, which seems to reflect a disposition to compel the viewer to commit to memory nearly every new picture painted on the canvas that is the screen. Like so:

Recently freed convict Horacia visits her old house on a gloomy day. She stands outside on the street, presumably collecting herself (she’s been behind bars for 30 years and every little thing is intimidating), but no one knows this until… she moves, there at the right corner of the frame, breaking up a solid silhouette.

(In my very subjective opinion, this Diaz signature technique that makes the viewer feel like he is looking at a work of art which suddenly comes to life was more compelling in “Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan.”)

I guess when a filmmaker embraces black-and-white, he does see countless shades of light and shadow, as much as others would glean the varying brilliance of colors.

The leaves on the trees in the madwoman Mameng’s hiding place look crisply illuminated and stunning. In another frame, two orbs that suggest nearby street lights seem like the bleary eyes of some formless entity that lies in wait. Harsh sunlight on her uneven skin amplifies Horacia’s pain and dampens her few moments of random gladness.

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Quiapo Church, Plaza Miranda in the dusk (or dawn?), final destination in “Ang Babaeng Humayo” 

None of these otherwise subtle stimuli is lost on my Seatmate. Although it is not her first black-and-white film, it is her very first local indie. As an entertainment consumer, she hasn’t missed an episode of “Ang Probinsiyano,” and her favorite TV cable channel is Pinoy Box Office. I succeed in dragging her out of the house only if we’re seeing a movie in 3-D. But she had to see her long-time idol Charo Santos’ comeback movie that was all over the news.

Fuel from a familiar tale

“Humayo” may have done away with the social commentary on urban settlers and still have come out keen and tight. The fuel from a timeless and familiar (nearly beloved) story of injustice and hopelessness, and characters so mindfully delineated would have been sufficient to make this movie an indelible experience.

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Storytelling in the downpour scene uses to advantage Santos’ voice as TV drama series host.

For the sheer size and depth of her character Horacia, Santos takes the cake. Admittedly, it is hard for Seatmate and myself not to mark some scenes as too close to her personality as host of the drama series “Maalaala Mo Kaya?” on television. In Venice of course, it very likely didn’t matter. On top of which, Santos’ voice is engaging, almost hypnotic. (It is a special skill, being both narrator and character in any movie. Two greats come to mind: Meryl Streep and Wynona Ryder.)

In a few other parts, the image of the actress as Teresa in the séance sequence from Mike de Leon’s 1976 suspense-drama film “Itim” (also in black and white, and for which Santos won Best Actress in the 1978 Asian Film Festival) kept flashing in my mind. But that breakdown at the foot of the stairs in front of her katiwala? Priceless. And being stumped to a freeze by the appearance of Hollanda, the beleaguered and tragic bakla, at her door? I seriously forgot to breathe.

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One of John Lloyd Cruz’s “face-less” moments.

John Lloyd Cruz’s best moments are all those before his face is revealed. I cannot be more serious here. His lonely, unbidden dance as Hollanda before an audience of two mismatched strangers at a desolate street corner stands equal to many other gems , which are not a few, in his past works.

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Unlikely allies: Nonie Buencamino as balut vendor and Santos as nocturnal stalker.

For the numerous highlights given Nonie Buencamino’s character as the hunchback balut vendor, none is as robust as that very same street corner scene when, delighted as a child would be by Hollanda’s performance, his impish chuckles fill the night air.

As for Michael de Mesa, we’re all the better for his undiminished talent—at no time does it feel like he’s acting (of course this may also be praise for the director’s deft hand), not even during the conversation with the parish priest about transgressions and contrition. Astutely, Diaz leaves this discussion inconclusive, as these exchanges often are in real life.

Possibly, I missed a few critical moments that everyone else shouldn’t. What happened to Mameng, for example, during my second restroom break when Seatmate was inexplicably distracted?

But I’m happy to have helped her get a new perspective on Filipino movie arts. I feel responsible for her repeated expressions of enjoyment: “Ang ganda!” “Ang ganda talaga!

No woman forgets her first Lav.

(Thanks to entertainment.abs-cbn.com for all the photos on this page.)

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