Barely six months after serenading the Berlinale with the eight-hour A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, Lav Diaz returns with a new feature which is — unlike his previous outing — simple, solid, self-contained and succinct. The Woman Who Left is an immensely immersive and engaging tale about a wronged individual’s grueling struggle between reconciliation and revenge. Featuring Diaz’s immaculate imagery — in high-contrast black and white, as usual — and a majestic performance from Charo Santos, The Woman should leave Venice with a few prizes before its long global trek, starting with a berth at Toronto on Sept. 9.
In his previous two features — A Lullaby and, two years prior to that, the Locarno prizewinner From What Is Before — Diaz has seemingly become increasingly vocal and explicit in articulating his views about the turbulent history of his home country. With The Woman Who Left, the filmmaker has opted for a more universal contemplation about the cruelty and absurdity of human existence. While still hinting at historical schisms of a recent past — the film was set in 1997, and begins with a news announcer announcing the end of Western colonialism as we know it with the handover of Hong Kong to China — The Woman Who Left hardly qualifies as a political allegory.
A succinct, poignant revenge drama.
The main theme here is simply how revenge moves in mysteriously cruel ways, with social outcasts being perennially vulnerable to the machinations of people in the social ranks above them. Nominally, The Woman Who Left is a reworking of Leo Tolstoy’s God Sees the Truth, But Waits, a short story about a Russian merchant who is arrested and charged with murder while on a business trip and spends 26 years in a Siberian jail before meeting and finally forgiving the real culprit. The Woman, however, kicks off where Tolstoy’s tale comes to a close.
Diaz’s protagonist here is former schoolteacher Horacia (Santos), who begins the film having already spent three decades in a rural correctional facility for a murder she didn’t commit. Having resigned herself to fate, she is suddenly informed she will be freed after her best friend in jail, Petra (Sharmaine Buencamino), has confessed to framing her. While Horacia does get a second crack at real life, she doesn’t find the peace which Tolstoy’s tragic hero attains on his death bed. Horacia returns to her ancestral home and discovers that her husband has already died; her daughter, Minerva (Marjorie Lorico), has departed for a new life in another town; and her eldest son, meanwhile, has disappeared into the big smoke of Manila.
Horacia’s mild, maternal veneer begins to crack as she deliberately plots her revenge against the ex-boyfriend who, out of a jealous rage, paid Petra to frame her 30 years ago: Rodrigo (Michael De Mesa), who is now the head of an affluent clan living within a fortified mansion amid a wave of murderous kidnappings gripping the Philippines then. She moves into a nearby house, blends into the neighborhood and exploits newly struck friendships to her ends.
During the day, she plays a caring mother figure to the mentally challenged street sleeper Mameng (Jean Judith Javier) in exchange for the village idiot’s information about Rodrigo’s routine; at night, she dresses up as a hoodlum — her disguise aided by the tattoos she got while in jail — and serves as the protector of a snack vendor (Nonie Buencamino), a role which allows her to hang around her quarry’s locale under cover. It’s her friendship with the epileptic drag artist Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz) which brings the film to its deadly denouement: her kindness towards the transsexual street-walker somehow leads to another murder, another individual taking the rap and yet another miscarriage of (social) justice.
Making her first screen appearance after resigning from her role as president of ABS-CBN, the media corporation which owns Cinema One, Santos has delivered a sturdy performance in which she brings to the fore all the unstable emotional contours of a mentally unraveling avenger. Somehow, the collaboration with mainstream backers — in the form of the conglomerate-owned Cinema One Originals — has seemingly infused focus and urgency into Diaz, with his storytelling and his message coming across loud and clear without the heavy-handed expositions marring the marathon-length Lullaby.
Rather than being a commercial sellout, The Woman Who Left is a taut exercise in which every shot burns with condensed emotions and human empathy, whether in the riveting depiction of the characters’ quotidian existence throughout, or the heartbreaking shots of Manila’s gloomy cityscape which makes up the final minutes of the film. Just like Pedro Costa refashioned a Jacques Tourneur zombie film into the slow-moving post-colonial treatise that is Casa de Lava, Diaz has also taken his conventional ingredients — the literary source, the revenge-noir narrative, the top-billing A-lister — and produced something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Production companies: Cinema One Originals, Sine Olivia Pilipinas
Cast: Charo Santos, John Lloyd Cruz, Michael de Mesa, Nonie Buencamino
Director-screenwriter-cinematographer-editor: Lav Diaz
Producers: Ronald Arguelles, Lav Diaz
Executive producers: Ronald Arguelles
Production designer: Popo Diaz
Costume designers: Kim Perez, Kyla Domingo
Sound designers: Che Villanueva, Corinne de San Jose
International Sales: Films Boutique
In Tagalog and English
No rating, 228 minutes