WE finally got to see “Ang Babaeng Humayo” at SM North Edsa and we felt sad that there were just about 20 of us inside the theater. “Barcelona”, which is now on its third week of showing, has more moviegoers. But this is understandable since Lav Diaz’ movies are not really made to be box-office blockbusters but to win awards abroad.
Lav’s film language and sensibility (and also Dante Mendoza’s) will be so alien to the typical local masa viewer who’s just after fast-paced escapist entertainment and prefers ‘kilig’ romcoms with ‘hugot’ lines. Diaz and Mendoza's profoundly ruminative and meditative films will really cater more to high-minded film critics and arthouse audiences in film festivals abroad. We think it will be a very difficult challenge for them to do a crowd pleasing flick ala-Cathy Garcia Molina.
But in all fairness to “Babaeng Humayo”, it’s easier to sit through than “Hele ng Hiwagang Hapis” which we weren’t able to stand and so we had to leave about half way through it. “Babaeng Humayo” is filmed in Lav’s usual black and white cinematography with static camerawork and his signature long, long 'tuhog' takes. He is not only the director of the movie but also the cinematographer, scriptwriter and editor. There is no musical scoring at all. Maybe, if Lav were also a musician like Jerrold Tarrog or Clint Eastwood, he’ll also compose the score himself. (He's also a musician but maybe not as professional as Tarrog.--Ed.)
The lead character is Horacia (Charo Santos), a former teacher who, after 30 years in prison, was told she’s free because the real killer in the crime she is accused of, her own friend Petra (Shamaine Buencamino), suddenly has confessed and admitted her guilt, saying she was paid by Charo’s jealous ex-boyfriend, Rodrigo (Michael de Mesa). So Horacia regains her freedom and plots her revenge against the man who framed her up.
The movie is said to have been inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s story “God Sees the Truth But Waits”, which was a required reading in our first year in college. But Lav’s version is very different because of the revenge angle. In Tolstoy’s story, the lead character, Ivan Dmitri, dies before he gets the order that he is already free. The real point of the story is forgiveness because Ivan Dmitri willingly forgave the man who wronged him, Makar.
In Lav’s movie, forgiveness is not the end point as Charo didn’t change her plan of vengeance against Michael, but someone else did it for her without her telling him to. The whole, and actually simple, story could be told by a more concise filmmaker in two hours or less. But since this is a Lav Diaz film, he once again takes his sweet, sweet time in telling his story and the result is another "slightly" overextended film that has many “laylay” and “boringga” moments.
We will come out clean and confess that we took some little naps during the movie. Sorry, we tried to fight it, but the rambling sleep-inducing scenes are so difficult to resist. Lav maybe a good black and white cinematographer so critics will notice his chiaroscuro (a word they often use in their reviews - our suggestion is for them to use tenebrism instead, for a change), but he is not so as an editor. There are scenes we felt that should have been shortened, or even totally excised, like that lengthy, noisy, indulgent and useless bonfire sequence in Puerto Galera’s White Beach.
Of course, Lav doesn’t forget to give his film a semblance of historical context and social relevance, like the radio reports concerning the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the year the film is set. It signifies the end of Western colonialism and also mentions that it’s the year that Mother Teresa, Princess Diana and Gianni Versace, three people so vastly different from each other, died.
There’s also mention of rampant kidnappings affecting Fil-Chinese businessmen, like the case of the Chiong sisters in Cebu, and there’s also a scene of “barong-barongs” being demolished for critics to notice that it has many layers, is allegorical, has broader social significance and can be open to many valid interpretations. There are also poetic stories in florid Tagalog being told for a literary touch (voiced by Charo herself) in order to impress critics who’ll then say that this touches the Filipino soul and psyche.
Charo develops a split personality and leads a double life in the course of the movie. At daytime, she frequents the church with a veil on her head, a saintly philanthropist and social worker who helps the town’s “taong grasa” and other social outcast, poor unfortunate souls like Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz), a transgender prostitute who is also suicidal and epileptic. At night, Charo dresses up like a man and befriends a hunchback balut vendor (Nonie Buencamino) in the hope of stalking her target, Rodrigo. The mild-mannered teacher who teaches other convicts in prison to read also becomes ruthlessly violent to a fat scavenger who she beats up.
In another scene, Charo becomes sweetness and light as she suddenly shows that she has a pretty good singing voice, with her acapella rendition of “Somewhere” from “West Side Story”, while John Lloyd prances and dances around while singing “Sunrise Sunset” from “Fiddler on the Roof” and the local song “Kapag Tumibok ang Puso”. It is a pleasant breather in a film that reeks with so much pain and anguish.
Charo invests her role with quiet, solid dignity, sometimes totally disappearing in her role, but reminding us in the scenes where she does voice over narration that, hey, isn’t she the voice in “Maalaala Mo Kaya” which has been on air for the past 25 years? This is her comeback in acting after 17 years and she reminds us of the Charo we appreciated so much in “Kisapmata”, “Itim”, “Hindi Mo Ako Kayang Tapakan”, “Kontrobersyal”.
But at times, she is eclipsed by John Lloyd Cruz as Hollanda. It’s JLC who totally disappears in his role, giving a terrific knockout portrayal in such an offbeat role that only an actor who is so dead sure of his sexuality and masculinity can accept and portray so accurately and convincingly. His scene alone with the investigator where he removes his synthetic breasts and fixes his crotch is already worth the price of admission. For us, this is his best performance to date.
Giving superb support in just one extended scene is Michael de Mesa, who nails perfectly that chilling confession scene with the priest asking “Is there a God, Father?” Just like Charo, he is seeking redemption but doesn’t know how to find it. We have another question about Michael’s character. Why did it take him so long to take revenge on Charo? Her youngest daughter was already seven years old when he framed her up. Someone who is seething with jealousy would not have waited that long.
There are other questions left hanging. Why was there no communication at all between Charo and her kids the whole time she was in prison? When Charo is reunited with her daughter (Marjorie Lorico), who was only 7 years old when she was jailed, Charo is tall and beautiful and her daughter is short and fat and didn’t seem to have inherited anything from her. We just consoled ourselves: “Siguro mas nagmana sa ama.” Even his son, who’s missing (and the movie ends with Charo posting his photos all over the city to look for him) is said to be only 5’5” in height, when Charo is such a tall woman. “Siguro, mas nagmana rin sa tatay nila.”