‘Ang Babaeng Humayo’: A journey of evil and good

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In Photo: The dichotomy of light and shadow runs like a varicose vein of themes in Ang Babaeng Humayo, the Lav Diaz film starring Charo Santos-Concio, which won the top prize in the 73rd Venice Film Festival.

tito genova valiente“Eternity bores me,

I never wanted it.”

—Sylvia Plath

MEN, in our society, leave for distant places but women stay at home. In Lav Diaz’s Ang Babaeng Humayo, Horacia is the mother who leaves for prison, a place the distance of which can only be measured in terms of time and not in miles. Horacia is accused of a crime that, we will find out, she didn’t commit. When she is released, it is only because someone else has admitted to the crime after many long years.

Petra, the woman who committed the crime for which Horacia was imprisoned, admits to the crime. This is the same woman who has become Horacia’s friend in the correctional. The prison warden has become a friend, as well, having only kind words for Horacia, which fulfills the template for correctional as a location for women bonding with women. The world of men seems unkind and cruel.

Where men in prison cells are pictured as out to slay each other, the women are imagined to be protective of each other. This bright scenario is, however, the only light at the end of this film, a dark tunnel into the life of a woman who left but who really never arrives in any kind of destination.

Length matters, in life as in cinema. We are aware of the eight or nine hours that Diaz has previously navigated. Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (North: The Limits of History), which clocked in at some four hours, gave us a preview of what brevity, relative as it may be, could do to the legendary visual langour of Diaz’s kind of narrative.

In Ang Babaeng Humayo, Diaz shortens the storytelling to a little under four hours. The immediate impression the audience would get is how the meditative pace, the gaps and silences are, indeed, essential to the kind of story the film is telling. If one, for all reasons of praxis, struggled through the lengthy meandering and near real-time framing of the typical Diaz piece, in this film one can be relieved at how the slowness of the action delivers fully the meaning and message for the many scenes.

I felt there was no need to hurry at all. I sensed a glorious escape into a great plot, one that naturally thickens because there is a warranted plodding, a digging deep into the roots, the soul of a theme that ransacks the brain and the soul, and turns the two human structures upside down.

As in meditation, we go into the depths of the human condition. Diaz has found the formula, it seems, for a film that thinks out about guilt, revenge and the questions one asks in isolation. There’s enough time—more than enough time—to look at the characters and see them think and talk about their thoughts. The luxury of space turns into a surplus of time for us to travel with the characters.

Released from prison, Horacia becomes even more imprisoned by the things she wants to do. She finds her daughter again, but soon discovers her husband is dead and her son is missing.

The characters of Horacia and the other players in this saga are always out looking for something. For Eva Hoffman, memory “can perform retrospective maneuvers to compensate for fate.” Horacia, the woman who left, has lost touch of fate, if fate is the act of looking forward. There is no forward in this woman, only a backward remembering of what the world has done to her.

The dichotomy of light and shadow runs like a varicose vein of themes in Ang Babaeng Humayo. Horacia leaves the bleakness of the prison only to find the day too bright for any of her plans. So, this woman dresses up like a man and appears out of the shadow into the night. In the darkness, Horacia befrieds a balut vendor who is naturally bitter about many things. The two become partners in the dark, as Horacia thinks about killing the man who has falsely accused her of a crime. When Horacia steps out of the prison, she does not automatically become the good citizen to emulate. She knows the power of her release surges when it is hidden. Except for her daughter and a few acquaintances, no one knows Horacia has been released. There’s a reason for this, and the film solves and resolves this in the most original way: the woman oppressed is avenged by a transgender, a man who has left his male-hood, but will never get to any femaleness at all. In transit, the action of the transgender is neither here nor there, his motive bereft of any motive that will lift him/her above the other characters in this parable of prodigality.

Evil in the person of  Rodrigo Trinidad, however, basks in the light of day, in the most public of places: the Catholic Church. Rodrigo is also within the reach of priests ready to bless him and his endeavors. And yet, it is at night when Horacia wants to seek revenge against this man who used to love her and, in his most despicable of deeds, remains a creature of the brightest of days.

The scene of  Rodrigo with the priest remains for me the scariest point in the film. The scene shows Rodrigo seated a few chairs away from the priest. Rodrigo asks the most banal of questions: Is there a God? To this, the priest replies that he has a faith he holds on to: a pananampalataya, a form of worshipping that helps him cope with the “God” whose existence Rodrigo is questioning. Michael de Mesa paints a terrible, terrifying character. When the priest leaves, he is still there seated. With no complementary closeup shot to let us in his mind, de Mesa’s smirk could be felt from afar as he chuckles, impressed with his own duplicity and the incapacity of any good society to stop him. Evil, as the saddest form of aloneness, is difficult to portray but Diaz has done it in this film masterfully.

The rest of the characters in Ang Babaeng Humayo are all shady in the literal sense of the word. They all live in shadows, in darkness to better protect them from the light, which is reserved for the wealthy and the powerful. Horacia at night joins a vendor, a kuba, or hunchback, no less. Nonie Buencamino humanizes this otherwise trite figure whose appearance is melodramatically fleshed out. Buencamino makes it possible for us to understand the strange behavior of this woman he shares the dark with.

As Horacia, Charo Santos-Concio has the grand presence of an archetype. Her physicality allows her to be Mother Courage and Mater Dolorosa all at once. When drunk, she confesses to losing her temper, and Santos-Concio does a magnificently awkward handling of a gun.

This mother can be mean. Now, this is the irony of this actress: her build has imbued her with a visual strength, but in the story, she is the undisputed loser. She is the one who left her home not because she wanted to but because man-made laws compelled her to do so.  Outside, the mastermind, always the person with a mind who can master events, is male and free.  Where does this condemnation come from? The storyteller can brief us more about his extra-cinematic vision.

The media have been quite not fair to the other lead in the film: John Lloyd Cruz as Hollanda, the transgender, named after a country that was randomly picked as a globe was spun. A la suerte, or out of luck, is how we call Hollanda’s situation. Cruz is the man/woman who leaves his/her place and moves on and on to find a place where he could die. On that island, Hollanda meets Horacia, the woman who left and is now back in a place that is quite not her own. For all the rituals of naming that have gone to Hollanda’s birth, really she/he has no place on this earth. As someone who seeks to find the right place to die with a woman who is trying to find another time to live in, Cruz is both an itinerant circus clown and a cartographer of bad dreams.

The scene of John Lloyd Cruz with Charo Santos-Concio as they talk and drink while seated on a sofa is the other horrifying scene in the film. There, two persons who are good in themselves talk of their lives as if they control it. Little do they know that both their lives are determined by the kindness or viciousness of strangers. John Lloyd Cruz is given a character that requires a tour de force performance and he proves to be a tricky tour guide. He makes us believe he is bad, when, in fact, he’s truly good.

In this land of stars, we rarely have a film compelling because of its narrative. Ang Babaeng Humayo is a good example of a film driven by a grand story, told in a screenplay and cinematography both attributed to its director, Lav Diaz.

Finally, the stasis of Diaz’s camera creates the many diverse movements of this quiet, disturbing concerto about evil and good, and how we are always in transit between the two mysteries.