Home Again: On Lav Diaz’s “The Woman Who Left” (2016)

A screen shot of prison from the Lav Diaz film, The Woman Who Left

Lav Diaz’s (somewhat) overlong The Woman Who Left offers complex characters and moments of poesy in unexpected places.

“Images are struggling in the corners of this room…”

-from “The Tower of Black” by Bahagharing Timog

The Philippines is not even a memory. I was a year old when they brought me to America, under circumstances still shrouded by vague detail, even at the age of twenty-four. Those islands live in distant waters called the past, and not even my own, but a past imparted to me in the monologues of aging women, or in the words of my father, who kept any talk of his childhood brief – too often were his words suddenly capped by the silence of memory, or the heat of a spiteful lecture.

We were a family on the move, never in one home for more than a few years, but the tattered and bulky photo albums stayed with us. My siblings and I often flipped through them, sometimes in amusement, and other times as if we searched for clues that could, if arranged correctly, direct us out of our displacement; could, in some way, solve the conundrum of our household’s misery. Were we conscious of this? Likely not, but an urge deeper than the entertainment induced by taskless boredom drew us back to these albums, nudged our fingers to trace bodies unwrinkled and darkened by an equatorial sun. Surely something more intense than a child’s easy delight brought our eyes time and again to the scenes of our parents’ wedding. Why did my father and mother, in our genesis, appear as strange to me as the strangers in the pictures? The church it was held in looked to be constructed solely by robust shadow and flashes of light revealing oddities: unfamiliar faces, clasped hands, frozen dancing, a gaudy cake our parents, close together, cut. My mother, bride-white, was very young, and her beauty (later burdened by five pregnancies and many separations) radiated so plainly there, even as a shade of the future seemed to haunt her joy.

Inside those albums were young, slim and smiling people who looked more like close relations to, rather than the younger versions of, those I knew as my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Something had trapped their vitality in keepsakes, rendering it as exotic to me as the world of heavy palm leaves, tin shacks and clubhouses surrounding them in the pictures. The Third World, they call it, and could it be truer? What else would you call a world that materialized out of nostalgia, heartache and slow chemical development? The phrase is normally bandied about in terms of economic deprivation, but from the beginning, whenever it was said, I felt the air out of a dream blow through me (“Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten…”). A dream, or a fairy tale, as my elder relatives often attached stern warnings to the stories of their former lives. Thus, the Philippines became less a real place than it did a repository of parables made for my moral benefit, locked away, again, by those distant waters called the past.

How do you reconcile yourself with a country you cannot remember? Whose words, in the end, count? The act of remembrance, after all, can be treacherous, especially when attached to decades of disappointment. Their history is not mine, and yet, what is it that alters those islands from their true appearance into sepia? The photographs I held as a child were much clearer.

The color of memory runs along a spectrum not just of light, but emotion – years are discolored, transformed by strokes of longing. The mind, as it shuttles backwards, reinvents the world it once inhabited, bound only by the laws of imagination – now, sepia; later, covered by riotous dawn. Gulls gather around a shadow near the water’s surface. What once was distant now is near. Close your eyes. Open: black and white. A city, a woman. The rush of evening wind and recollection. Home, again…

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Despite the shape of its plot and the actions of its characters, Lav Diaz’s 2016 film Ang Babaen Humayo (The Woman Who Left) is less an exploration of revenge than it is of guilt. The characters have their reasons to mete out vengeance, to be sure, but guilt is what motivates them, compelling them out of course, and arranging destinations unsought – especially for Horacia, who, after thirty years in prison, is finally released after a friend and fellow inmate confesses to committing the crime that put her behind bars. What follows, over the course of almost four hours, takes its cues from revenge melodramas, slow-paced European arthouse cinema, and Tolstoy. Diaz takes a simplistic parable from the Russian’s corpus about the spiritual salvation of an innocent wrongly accused and stretches it to its – ungodly, some might say – limits. We transition from Siberia to Southeast Asia. The Philippines, 1997. Here, it is a haunted archipelago, the movement of Western powers hovering overhead while grim news reports of kidnappings targeting the country’s wealthy intone in Taglish. These provide the bare backdrop to Horacia’s journey as it drags itself to the darkness of the final scene.

The inmate, unable to withstand her guilt, takes her own life. Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio) is stunned out of the strangely pastoral peace she has found in prison – she teaches English to the local children and writes short stories in her spare time. She requests that the warden tell no friends or family of her release, and reenters society to find her husband dead, her daughter now a young woman, and her son vanished without a trace. Lav Diaz makes obvious that what she left behind is utterly changed, and Horacia resolves to hunt down the man responsible for her thirty-year imprisonment: Rodrigo Trinidad (Michael de Mesa), an ex-lover who framed Horacia after she jilted him, referred to in The Woman Who Left as “the mastermind.” She ties up loose ends with remaining connections, gathers resources, and takes a ferry to the province, where she becomes a ghost, roaming the city streets in male clothing and a hat pulled over her eyes.

Horacia circles Rodrigo’s estate, which looms over the surrounding ghetto. The poverty-stricken community speaks of him in almost mythical undertones. He is a benefactor of the local church and is rarely seen apart from his bodyguards and gaggle of family members. (The kidnappings are always a risk, and frequently gruesome). What sort of reptile could doom an innocent woman to lifelong incarceration? A conversation with the town priest reveals his fundamental human lack:

Rodrigo: Father, the person you knew as Rodrigo?

Priest: I’m listening.

Rodrigo: That’s not me. It’s my disguise. A pretense. I hurt a lot of people, Father. I wrecked lots of lives. I knew I hurt all those people, but…why can’t I be a good person, Father? Why can’t I fight this hell inside me? Why does evil always overcome my soul? I don’t know why I’m filled with so much hatred. I can’t resist it no matter what I do. It’s different inside me. I can’t fight it. It’s like I have an animal within me.

Priest: Do you ever feel sorry for the things you’ve done?

Rodrigo: I do. And I don’t. There are times when I’m sorry for the things I’ve done. But there are times when I feel I’ve done the right thing. I’m happy I’ve destroyed the life of this person whom I hated so much.

There’s a brief theological exchange. Rodrigo interrogates the priest’s belief in God. The priest supplies some banalities, which Rodrigo laughs off – coolly donning his sunglasses while the holy man walks away in befuddlement. In another story, Rodrigo might be on his knees, tears on his face as he pours himself out to the priest. In this one, one leg is folded over the other, his hands are clasped atop them, and the slow, toneless quality of his voice betrays a sociopathic core. In Woody Allen’s great Crimes and Misdemeanors, the rich man played by Martin Landau says, right before he plans a murder, “God is a luxury I can’t afford.” Such a statement would not sound ridiculous coming from Rodrigo’s mouth, except God’s in his pocket, too, and rather than a luxury is instead a trinket which he can pull out and observe and, ultimately, discard.

As Horacia stalks her prey, even purchasing a gun in the hopes of finally avenging thirty years lost, something unexpected occurs: she finds herself drawn to the outcasts subsisting in Rodrigo’s shadow, among them a hunchbacked balut peddler and a filthy beggar who pesters townspeople, referring to anyone who inconveniences her as “demonio.” This is a trick of empathy Lav Diaz uses to enrich her character. The outcast Horacia becomes closest to is a trans woman named Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz) – a much-abused, epileptic prostitute who encroaches into Horacia’s life in the same way a stray animal might after receiving a stranger’s gentle touch. Horacia becomes their benefactor, as if acting in Rodrigo’s stead to redress the social ills happening all around him. Her insistence on assistance, even during her imprisonment, crowds out the compulsion to kill, a compulsion that gnaws at her while relentlessly driving her actions. The violence that does spring out of her is never directed at Rodrigo – instead, it spills onto those she purports to help. Her position of privilege, albeit on the opposite extreme of Rodrigo’s, seems similarly capable of inflicting harm sans consequence, a tension that The Woman Who Left continually plays with.

What happens in the film? What do the long shots filled with silences, awkward glances, and shooting-the-shit conversations amount to? I won’t quarrel with those who’d advocate for a trimming. I can imagine entire scenes cut without sacrificing an ounce of the film’s power, but such is not the way of the “slow cinema” movement (of which Lav Diaz is an earnest disciple – several of his films clock at over 330 minutes), and Diaz seems hellbent on convincing viewers of his project’s enormity – the weight of a nation buckles atop this rather spare narrative of a woman’s need for closure.

I mentioned at the beginning that The Woman Who Left is a film about guilt, not revenge. After all, so much of the film indicates the pointlessness of such efforts. What of the ceaseless kidnappings, and the unavenged deaths therein? The faceless men who attack and rape Hollanda and the street peddler – are they hunted down in the name of justice? The wandering beggar is bathed, for the first time in a long time, by Horacia, but refuses her help afterwards, returning to the streets and the filth. Why? Does she feel undeserving of Horacia’s love? Perhaps Rodrigo is a remorseless cad, but does some small measure of guilt compel him to play confession with his priest, returning every Sunday to the church where he, ultimately, will meet his demise at the hands of Hollanda in an act of either pure nihilism or messianic devotion?

As for Horacia, revenge is likewise moot. What’s left to avenge is long gone. Lav Diaz forces her to pursue Rodrigo less out of rage than out of mourning, roaming the night in search of family to replace the one she lost. Did she hold the same casual, aimless conversation with her husband as she does with the street peddler? I can easily imagine Horacia similarly fussing over her daughter’s hair, in the scene of her cleansing the beggar. And Hollanda is the son transformed into a woman, and thus both her children simultaneously.

The final scenes of The Woman Who Left bottom out in despair. Hollanda is imprisoned after the murder of Rodrigo. Horacia, the inadvertent mastermind of the crime, must leave, parting with her newfound connections in the same way she parted with the inmates. Lav Diaz now shifts his setting to the clutter of urban sprawl – she now hunts for her long-vanished son, spreading hundreds of notices around the city. These end up as litter on the city streets, remarked on with slight curiosity by pedestrians who are otherwise unperturbed. The closing scene adopts a rare poetry in a film of such relentless straightforwardness, although its grimness overwhelms: Horacia circles, dazed, in an unspecified space, hundreds of Missing notices at her feet, her shadow a moving scar upon the scattered white pages. The prior events have done little to assuage the pain of her long absence. The days of joy are behind her. She is now engulfed in total shadow, and the woman who left is left to seemingly face a future void of any further closure.

A screen shot of home from the Lav Diaz film, The Woman Who Left

These memories are not mine. This Philippines is not mine. It is not even that of my older relatives, who (lacking the training to tolerate such an experience) would likely balk at the film’s length, approach, and subject matter. Yet, it is one presented in a visual vocabulary not unfamiliar to me. I suspect Lav Diaz and I are similar in our attachment to the Western artistic tradition, and he approaches his stories with a high seriousness that I admire, despite whatever flaws projects of such ambition, for most artists, inevitably incur.

The color of this particular memory is nil, stark and almost alien save for the implication of color in the film’s softer regions. My experience with Filipino media is almost exclusively limited to the endless soap operas, inane game shows, and mundane news reports my parents idly watched on the off chance we’d be subscribed to overseas service on TV. Then, I was inundated by color and noise and vibrant meaninglessness, watching in mute fascination as commentary in a tongue I never learned babbled on and on. These were the activities of, again, the people inhabiting a realm one world removed from ours. They were similar to those I knew in America in ways both deeper and superficial – what country doesn’t have its junk fare meant to amuse a bored mass of souls utterly voracious for more of the same? The depths, however, were unknown to me, and are only beginning to surface with adulthood’s hard lessons. Any effort to objectively understand one’s origins includes the confrontation of biases, old and new; films such as these, by artists like Lav Diaz, will be essential to my understanding of the islands I left, and the more colors (or lack thereof, in this instance) I encounter, the fuller its reality will become.

The task of returning to one’s inheritance involves the careful re-touching of the past. Adding shades, fixing tinctures, and outperforming older hues, one coaxes life out of its hidden place in history, bringing dynamism to memories long gone stale. Although it is impossible to fully resurrect the previous layers, the color of imagination suffuses what was damaged with the immediacy of the present. So it is with one’s conception of an unremembered country, I suppose. The Philippines in my mind is in dire need of restoration.

Traveling there, given the present global situation, is for another time, and comes with its own burdens and responsibilities. Apart from this, what better way to study my far-off archipelago than by observing the canvases of its most original minds? Life, in any territory on earth, is best understood through serious reflection, and art at its best provides that necessary moment to stop, consider, imagine and re-imagine, compelled by the force of another’s vision to scrutinize oneself and what one sees, unrestricted by borders, bodies, and the distancing effect of years.

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If you enjoyed this review of Lav Diaz’s The Woman Who Left, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a dissection of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Galapagos, a philosophical look at kitsch, aesthetics, and NFTs with UK painter Ethan Pinch, and a long discussion of photography from Alfred Stieglitz to Fan Ho and Vivian Maier.

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