Sunday, October 02, 2016

Ang Babaeng Humayo

In an earlier post, I wrote how the female-driven revenge flick has been around for a while. While there's been an abundance of variations on this theme, Lav Diaz brings to the table his own interpretation of the tale with Ang Babaeng Humayo (The Woman Who Left,) which recently won the top prize at this year's Venice Film Festival.

Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio) is the titular woman, who has been released from prison after serving a thirty year sentence for a crime that she did not commit. She then plots her eventual revenge, meeting several people along the way, including a trans woman (John Lloyd Cruz) with self destructive tendencies. At the same time she grapples with the consequences of her incarceration, and the things she has lost in the intervening time.

While the plot is built on a Tolstoyan foundation (this time, it's God Sees the Truth, But Waits) the film sets itself apart from the story, and most other films of this revenge genre, by putting a very unique spin to the tale. It ruminates on the very idea of revenge and forgiveness, on how a dogged fixation on the past destroys people, and how revenge is reflexively self destructive. Diaz's Horacia-as-Aksionov walks a similar journey of accepting fate, while at the same time, unlike Aksionov, trapping herself in what ifs and lost possibilities. Multiple times she tries to be a mother to the people she meets, and to a taong grasa who sees demons. More often than not, she falters. Her connection with Cruz's character, Hollandia, is physical and spiritual at the same time. As Horacia takes on multiple identities as kindly Renata, who dons a more masculine appearance at night, Hollandia takes an identity along her feminine self identification. She sees in Hollandia a pattern of self destruction mirroring her own. But deep inside Horacia is the true Horacia, who has been undeniably changed after thirty years of imprisonment. She longs for a life she was denied.

While the plot is relatively streamlined (at a little more than 3 and a half hours, this is one of Diaz's shorter films) the film is rich with symbolism. The film lends itself to multiple layers of meaning. The casting of Charo Santos as the titular character searching for her identity is an inspired one, with her narration in some scenes evoking the public conscience of her stint as the host of the long running drama show Maalaala mo Kaya, of which this very movie could serve as an example of the show's many dramatic stories. As the former head of Star Cinema, which pretty much shaped the mainstream Filipino film through most of the 90's and 2000's, this film could be about the identity of Philippine cinema itself, and how it searches for that identity after the cultural upheaval of recent decades - with independent and mainstream melding into an indistinguishable shape, film being film with no labels.

And, as much as Ang Babaeng Humayo is a revenge film - it is also a film about postcolonialism. Its setting in 1997 marked one of the final transitions from a colonial, imperialist world into a postcolonial one - that of Hong Kong's turnover to mainland China. The movie alludes to kidnapping and incarceration, and it's hard not to see countries liberated from their colonial masters as prisoners who have served long sentences. Coming out of our own 300 year imprisonment from the Spaniards, we fought for our own independence, only to be occupied once again by the Americans, the Japanese, and in the case of Martial Law, our own selves. We emerge from this fugue state having lost so much of ourselves, mirroring Horacia's own plight, fixated on the past tense, but uncertain on how to form the future tense. And, in depicting the inequalities of life post-incarceration, we see its reflection in the film's depiction of the divide between first and third world.

The film makes a case for freedom, true liberation from our collective pasts, by focusing on what's ahead, by opening the door into an uncertain future. But as the film's final frames tell us, that may be harder than we think; we may still be trapped into an endless cycle looking for things past, for things lost, and in one character's words: what's lost may be gone forever.

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