‘Ang Babaeng Humayo’ (Lav Diaz, 2016): time and solace and sorrow

Lav Diaz, inspired by Leo Tolstoy, delivers another distinct portrayal of life’s pains and suffering, as well as its quiet joys.

Charo Santos-Concio as Horacia, wearing a veil, in Lav Diaz's Ang Babaeng Humayo (2016).

The manipulation of time is the soul of Lav Diaz’s artistry. As many writers have noted, time is Diaz’s instrument of exchange with his audience: the viewers surrender their precious hours for his films, in exchange for glimpses at truths of the world and humanity, and insights into the fabled human condition. It is not merely about the unconventionally epic lengths of his works, which is apparent enough, but also his penchant for protracted, steady gazes. In the spectrum of pacing in cinema, Diaz’s works occupy the extremity opposite the dizzying, rushed rhythm of Hollywood action flicks.

Lav Diaz manipulates time in this manner often to express both solace and sorrow. In Ang Babaeng Humayo (The Woman Who Left), this takes particular resonance. It is the story of Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio), a schoolteacher who is imprisoned for thirty years for a crime she did not commit. Her name itself derives from the Latin hora, signifying hour, or time.

Warning: this review presents a reading of the film, and it necessarily shares details of plot and other elements, or ‘spoilers’.

Diaz’s patient, unhurried works reflect his past and present pantheon of classical inspirations, which are themselves often lengthy: Dostoyevsky (whose Crime and Punishment informs 2013’s Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan), Rizal, mythology, and history itself (the elements woven into Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis.) Now, for Humayo, Diaz turns to a short story by Leo Tolstoy, God Sees the Truth, but Waits. (A short story from the grand novelist Tolstoy sounds as implausible as a short film from Diaz, but such things exist.)

Diaz’s insight from Tolstoy is that “neither of us really understands life. We don’t really know. This is one of the most essential truths of existence. And more often, we abide and succumb to life’s randomness.” It is a fatalistic attitude, and it manifests in Humayo‘s portrayal of characters adapting to the circumstances of life. Another theme that Diaz takes from Tolstoy is faith, and questions about God pervades the film. (A cathedral, in particular, serves as a recurrent, crucial setting.)

Lav Diaz takes the story from Tolstoy, then applies his favored cinematic device of contemplative time. In the process, he fully fleshes out the story’s potential for portraying life’s pains and suffering, as well as its quiet joys.

Pain and joy, and other black and whites of humanity

Pain is what we see in the setting. The year is 1997, in the Philippines. Before the first shot of the film, over the opening titles, we hear news reports on the scourge of the time: rampant crime, particularly the kidnapping of wealthy people for ransom. The country has become the kidnapping capital of Asia, certainly a distasteful distinction. Further news reports later in the film share the other tragedies of the time: the death of Princess Diana of Wales in a car crash, followed less than a week later by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, of more natural causes. The events echo Diaz’s insight that people, be they rich and powerful or humble and holy, all succumb to the circumstances of life.

Kidnapping, in 1997, was the talk of the town as much as illegal drugs is in 2016. Wealthy figures are abducted, and disappear from society, for the profit of criminals. Meanwhile, ordinary people like Horacia are abducted from society by injustice. Her false conviction was orchestrated by Rodrigo (Michael de Mesa), her ex-suitor, who was motivated to ruin her life perhaps because of her choice to marry another man. Rodrigo comes from a wealthy and powerful family, and indeed his name itself means ‘he who is rich in glory’.

Rodrigo mostly serves as a distant antagonist in Humayo, the ultimate target of Horacia’s plotting. He is characterized in only one scene, when he reveals his sins to the priest in the cathedral. The priest offers that they talk in the confessional, in the formal ritual and sacrament of confession, but Rodrigo refuses, preferring a casual conversation on a bench. He confesses that he has been evil and has destroyed so many lives, but when the priest asks if he has remorse for these actions, he says that he does, and that he also doesn’t. He says that there is one particular person’s life which he does not regret destroying. It is not revealed who this person is, but it is easy to imagine that he was referring to Horacia. Rodrigo asks the priest, where is God, and is he really fair and just? It is another echo from Tolstoy.

(It is tempting to ask, was Rodrigo’s character intentionally named after the controversial current leader of the Philippines? President Rodrigo Duterte is unrepentant of his self-confessed killing of criminals after all. “I don’t care if I go to hell as long as the people I serve will live in paradise,” he has once said, supposedly.)

The joys of life, in Ang Babaeng Humayo, is found in the various characters Horacia meets. She seeks some of them in her plotting for revenge; the others, she finds simply out of necessity or chance. But they all, in common, contribute to Horacia’s journey by bringing out the inherent goodness in her. Not even thirty years of confinement could erase her kindness and generosity of spirit.

This recalls a scene before Horacia was released from prison. Seeing how Horacia continues to share her passion for teaching and storytelling, an inspired inmate asks if people, despite imprisonment, remain as they were when they were still free. To this, Petra (Shamaine Buencamino), another prisoner and Horacia’s friend, dismissively replies that, no, “lahat naglalaho” (“everything is lost”). Petra’s name, which shares the same root as Peter, meaning stone or rock, informs her hardened stance towards life. And this is explained by the revelation, through her confession, that she was the one who in fact committed the crime that Horacia was wrongly detained for. Petra, under the weight of this guilt, commits suicide on the day of Horacia’s release.

Horacia, on her part, is of course shattered. Her first instinct, upon her return to society, is to find her family. She is agonized over the news that her husband has passed away a long time ago. She reunites with her daughter Minerva (Marjorie Lorico), but her son is missing. Rather than live the rest of her life quietly with her daughter, her hatred of the man who ruined her life sends her on a quest for revenge.

But evil is not natural to Horacia. Even as she transforms herself, venturing at night in disguise, hiding under aliases, her goodness inevitably manifests. When she hears out about her family’s fate from the caretaker of their old home, she realizes that her family’s time in that house is past, and decides to sell the property for the benefit of the caretaker’s family. The caretaker, at first hesitant in accepting the tremendous gift, breaks down in gratitude.

Horacia then stalks Rodrigo’s house, and on the streets outside she befriends the local balut vendor (played by Nonie Buencamino; the character remains unnamed). The first time they talk, the vendor shares about his belief in God; in contrast to Rodrigo, his faith is strong, because according to him he once dared God to cure his feverish child should he jump off a steep hill. And indeed he jumped, and when he somehow found his way home, he was greeted by his child, smiling and well. Horacia initially uses him to acquire information about Rodrigo, and later asks him for contacts to purchase a firearm. But as they spend many nights on the streets, they develop a genuine friendship. When the vendor has a rough night selling his balut, Horacia buys all his goods, pretending that the money came from a lucky strike at gambling; when the vendor’s youngest child falls sick again and needed money to see a doctor, Horacia does not hesitate in giving him money. This generosity prevails, even as she harbors hatred for the man who lives in the mansion at the end of the street.

Horacia also frequents the cathedral, again to stalk Rodrigo, who is ironically a regular parishioner and major donor. There she meets the mentally ill palaboy (street dweller) Mameng (Jean Judith Javier). Horacia takes pity on Mameng, and befriends her, buying her food and giving her money. Although this kindness at first is motivated again by her plot for revenge, as she asks for Mameng on information on which days and at what time Rodrigo visits the church, she also develops a genuine concern for her, even once inviting Mameng to her home and giving her an (uncomfortable) bath. Mameng has an obsession with calling everyone a demonyo (demon); in one amusing scene, she shows Horacia the exact pews in the cathedral where Rodrigo and the other rich and powerful people in town sit during Mass, followed afterwards by the phrase “lahat demonyo!” (“all demons!”). Mameng disappears eventually; the last time Horacia sees her, she runs away, shouting again, “lahat demonyo!” Despite her madness, she appears to have sensed the evil plot in Horacia’s mind.

The climax and biggest question of Ang Babaeng Humayo is delivered through the last major character Horacia meets: Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz), an epileptic transgender, another figure roaming the streets of the town at night. She first crosses paths with Horacia when she suffers a seizure on the streets; only Horacia was around to help her, and help her she did. But the twist in Humayo‘s plot comes when Horacia is finally ready to murder Rodrigo. When she opens her door on her way out to the cathedral to seek and shoot Rodrigo, she finds Hollanda standing on the doorway, bruised and wounded. She drops her plan to help Hollanda again in her time of need.

Charo Santos-Concio as Horacia, pointing a gun, in Lav Diaz's Ang Babaeng Humayo (2016).

Horacia nurses Hollanda back to health. Hollanda reveals that she was beaten and raped by a gang as she was wandering the streets; but she also says it would have been better if they just killed her. Hollanda is another character of circumstance. She tells Horacia an invented story that her name, of course not her real one, was so chosen because her mother stopped a spinning globe with her finger, and Holland was the country that it pointed at. Rejected by her family, she says that she likewise looked at a map of the country, and randomly found this island and city, and told herself that this, where no one knows her, is where she will die. And so she went there, roaming the streets at night, doing as she pleases, merely waiting to eventually die of recklessness.

One night, when Hollanda has already recovered from his injuries, Horacia shares drinks with her, and in her drunkenness starts revealing her past as a wrongfully detained prisoner. In the middle of her story, Hollanda interrupts, saying that she has read the file Horacia keeps of Petra’s confession; Horacia is enraged at this trespassing, fetches her gun, and threatens to kill Hollanda. But cooler heads prevailed, and soon she is saying sorry, and resumes her revelations, telling Hollanda how her appearance one night stopped her from killing Rodrigo. But Horacia falls asleep out of drunkenness. Hollanda disappears with the gun, and kills Rodrigo herself.

This is the prime challenge of the film: who is to blame for Rodrigo’s murder? Is it only Hollanda, as she carried out this act fully out of her own accord? Or is Horacia an accomplice, having indirectly caused it by providing a motivation for Hollanda, despite this being a twisted form of motivation? And, after all, she had already meditated on performing the act herself, and was only frustrated by Hollanda’s appearance. It is an interesting moral question, though Humayo does not dwell on it. Regardless of the moral resolution, the situation presents a timeless irony: that of an act of kindness for a social reject initially preventing a crime of revenge, only to ultimately cause the crime’s fulfillment by shifting its agent. It is a perversion of gratitude, a tragic disappointment of kindness and generosity.

After the crime, and the unexpected closure of her plot for revenge, Horacia moves on, travelling to Manila to continue the search for her missing son. The film ends with a bird’s eye shot of Horacia walking in circles, stepping on a scattering of missing-person flyers. It is probably uncalled for, but one could construe this shot to symbolize an inescapable cycle of life, which for the film is comprised of absence, loss, injustice and sins, and redemption and kindness.

If we were to boil down Ang Babaeng Humayo to its essence, though such an exercise will always be partly unjust to such expansive works as Lav Diaz films; if we were to extract a semblance of a lesson, if possible, from its portrayal of solace and sorrows, its slow, deliberate expression of time, what would it be?

We can find the answer in the words of Charo Santos-Concio and Lav Diaz themselves. To Santos, Humayo is “a story of forgiveness, of transcendence.” The plain, but great, lesson from Horacia the schoolteacher is the importance of forgiveness despite tremendous injustices; through forgiveness we transcend the randomness of life, our circumstances. It is an immense thing to demand of any person, but the scale of the challenge is what elevates it to the worthiness of an ideal. It is perhaps what Lav Diaz was referring to when, in his acceptance speech for the film’s Golden Lion win at Venice, he talks about “the struggle of humanity.”

Lav Diaz: style and legacy

There are many pleasures to be found in Ang Babaeng Humayo beyond its profound narrative. One of these is another element of Lav Diaz’s style that pervades his earlier works: a fascination for narrated prose. Metaphorical passages are sprinkled throughout the film, spoken by the characters themselves. A poetic voice-over, for instance, decorates the final shot of the film.

Another is cinematography: Humayo is distinctly framed Diaz-style, with long shots in static frames, the technique enabling Diaz’s famously contemplative gaze. This is implemented so consistently throughout the film’s nearly four hours of runtime that any deviation stands out. First was the shot after Hollanda left with Horacia’s gun, the only shot where the camera moves, in shaky-camera form, as if expressing Hollanda’s point of view as she stalks the alleys on her way to murdering Rodrigo. Then there are the back-to-back shots where Horacia learns of Rodrigo’s murder, which uniquely employ shallow depth-of-field, leaving only Horacia in focus as she deals with the implications of the murder.

Charo Santos-Concio as Horacia, in disguise, in Lav Diaz's Ang Babaeng Humayo (2016).

All these visuals are unaccompanied; the film is devoid of musical soundtracks, and this silence complements the somber, monochrome picture.

Santos-Concio deserves all the praises she is receiving for her elegant, restrained performance, a masterful portrayal of an aggrieved but noble character. However, the performances of Buencamino and Cruz deserve equal acclaim, if not greater, because their portrayals of the vendor and Hollanda, respectively, are so natural and convincing as to make it difficult to recognize the actors themselves. As Liza Diño says, “You don’t see [the actors] here, they are characters.” It is the type of genuine, transcendent performance that cinema audiences are always delighted to witness.

Yet, the greatest recognition for Ang Babaeng Humayo should still be reserved for Lav Diaz himself, who worked as director, writer, cinematographer and editor for this film, all at once. It is mostly a product of his singular vision. At the summit of victory, as he won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival for this film, we saw more of this grand outlook—he dedicated the win to the “country, for the Filipino people, for our struggle and the struggle of humanity.”

Our nation, and humanity, could not be more proud.

The still images from the film shared in this article were retrieved from IMDb.com.


2 thoughts on “‘Ang Babaeng Humayo’ (Lav Diaz, 2016): time and solace and sorrow”

  1. Fantastic review. And it makes me want to see the film. It looks like it’s destined to be a ‘classic’ Filipino film even as it has achieved its historic place already.
    But I can also glean from the story a sort of “call-to-action,” or the human empathy to sense the suffering of others and take it on themselves to continue the “mission,” especially when the experience becomes a shared one. (Just an aside… Could this be also what Duterte is doing in his war on drugs?) And the use of the Church as a motif has a lot to do with this “revenge” or “mission,” even though forgiveness has been paramount in the Church’s doctrine.
    But I can’t speculate more because I have not seen the film. But I recommend Diaz to personally promote and show this film to schools and spur students to discuss it. This film seems to have so many layers from so minimal a story.

    1. Thanks for the word of appreciation. In terms of ‘after-taste’, Lav Diaz’s films are the closest cinematic experience I’ve had to that of reading literary fiction—those serious novels that tackle the all-important notion of the human condition. (Maybe it’s simply because of the length.) And these works, in depicting the complexities of human beings, always have that implicit call-to-action for the reader to understand and be kinder to fellow persons.

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