In one scene in Lav Diaz’s Ang Babaeng Humayo, Rodrigo Trinidad (Michael de Mesa), one of a small town’s richest men, asks the local priest if he thinks there is a God. The priest, of course, answers that he has faith, that he sees God in everyone, in babies, in lost people, criminals and the poor. Rodrigo then rebuts, asking the priest coolly where God is. “Find him,” the priest replies. In a gesture that speaks of his unbothered surrender to his inability to find salvation, Rodrigo wears his sunglasses, and smiles.
Prior to that exchange about God, Rodrigo confessed to the priest of a sin, that in his youth, he framed an ex-girlfriend out of jealousy. That woman is Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio), an unfortunate soul who rot in jail for 30 years only to be released into a world that she no longer is a part of. She now spends her days managing an eatery and visiting the church, and her nights roaming the streets of Rodrigo’s town, scraping every bit of information out of small-time vendors and lowlives on Rodrigo, whom she wants to kill out of vengeance. (READ: 8 things you didn't know about Lav Diaz's 'Ang Babaeng Humayo')
Gods and monsters
The world of Ang Babaeng Humayo however is more aligned with Rodrigo’s cold and soulless perspective on the universe.
It is a world that feels bereft of God’s presence, where the church only offers false hopes, with the rest of humanity spending their entire lives in a fruitless journey to find God. Set in the latter years of the '90s, the film exploits the change and gloom that pervaded the world. The country is besieged with unstoppable murders and kidnappings. Homes are being demolished. The rich are getting richer, while the poor, poorer. Mother Theresa, who represented that flicker of kindness in such a dark world, has died. Injustice is the only constant thing.
The film takes its cue from Leo Tolstoy’s "God Sees The Truth But Waits", a short story that features a wrongly accused man who goes to prison for murder.
Tolstoy’s story culminates with the man eventually forgiving the real killer, coming to terms with his fate, and dying peacefully. Diaz, on the other hand, stretches the narrative further, extending it beyond death, with Horacia leaving the prison with a singular mission to pursue her framer and kill him. Redemption is as elusive as the pure-heartedness she lost when she learns the truth. Ang Babaeng Humayo is essentially the story of a virtuous woman who has become tainted by the cruel maneuverings of fate in a world where God, and therefore salvation, does not exist.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
The saying would have been relevant in Horacia’s story had her world outside the prison been anything but an aimless purgatory. She is portrayed as a woman who is used to committing acts of goodness. In prison, she teaches the inmates and their children various lessons. However, upon being motivated by vengeance, all her good deeds have now been tainted by a dastardly goal.
Santos-Concio, who finally returns to acting after heading a media conglomerate, is perfectly cast as Horacia. Her face enunciates the innocence that is slowly being stolen from her by her mission. Whenever she breaks to reveal a repressed emotion, such as when she bursts in tears upon learning of her family’s fate, the effect is tremendous and immediate. At night, when she loiters around town, donning clothes that would better fit a misfit, she becomes an ominous and intimidating presence, which is completely different from her almost saint-like role during the day.
The several personas Horacia commits to emphasizes Diaz’s obsession over fractured characters.
In a way, she is no different from the chameleons of Melancholia (2008), men and women who suddenly live lives that are not their own out of escape from their pasts’ transgressions, or from Fabian of Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte, the End of History, 2013), who is both an intelligent law student and a crazed anarchist, or from the young nation that is built on its colonial past, its myths, and pained literature whose beginnings are carefully depicted in Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, 2016).
Ang Babaeng Humayo features similarly situated characters. Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz, who gives a very impressive performance) is a transgender nightwalker who is also escaping her previous life. Kuba (Nonie Buencamino), the balut vendor who Horacia befriends reveals a secret as to why he returns to the same spot night after night despite meager sales. They are all united not only by the double lives they live, but also the second chances they waste in their pursuit of some sort of twisted redemption.
Bleak and blistering portrait
Ang Babaeng Humayo is a bleak and blistering portrait of the human condition.
It eschews the comforts and pleasures of the film genre it borrows from to emphasize the moral consequences that both past and present inflict on humanity. Each frame Diaz constructs bleeds with pain, filtered of any color not because it has always been part of Diaz’s aesthetics but because melancholy and suffering are emphasized in stark monochrome. The film is an achievement, a harrowing examination of meandering souls in a futile pursuit of a redemption that can never exist. – Rappler.com
Francis Joseph Cruz litigates for a living and writes about cinema for fun. The first Filipino movie he saw in the theaters was Carlo J. Caparas’ 'Tirad Pass.' Since then, he’s been on a mission to find better memories with Philippine cinema.