Review: The Woman Who Left – Ang babaeng humayo (2016)


The Woman Who Left – Ang babaeng humayo (2016)

Directed by: Lav Diaz | 226 minutes | drama | Actors: Charo Santos-Concio, John Lloyd Cruz, Michael De Mesa, Nonie Buencamino, Shamaine Buencamino, Mae Paner, Mayen Estanero, Marjorie Lorico, Lao Rodriguez, Kakai Bautista, Jo-Ann Requiestas, Jean Judith Javier, Daniel Palisa

1997. Hong Kong is handed over to China by the British. The Philippines is succumbing to internal power struggles and puzzling kidnappings. Progress is incrementally entering the Southeast Asian countryside. These are times of change, the future an unwritten page. But it is mainly those who are already well off that benefit. The gap between rich and poor is widening. The vast majority are left empty-handed.

The namesake of the film ‘The Woman Who Left’ also experiences this. The Filipino woman (glorious rendition of Charo Santos-Concio) is released from unjust imprisonment after thirty years. A jealous ex has her to pay for the murder committed by someone else. Life in the cell was tough. The strict regulations stood in the way of any sense of freedom. Only by telling or reading stories could the detainees feel free. Language as an escape, in stories about life.

Those stories take on a different meaning when the woman sets foot outside the prison after all these years. The notion of freedom requires a new interpretation. The world has changed in thirty years. Certainties are gone. Life starts all over again. The woman, who used to be a primary school teacher, opts for a completely new start. All that remains from the time before her captivity are her two children. However, one has moved, the other is missing.

In the search for meaning, she meets others whose life has taken a different turn. Those encounters show her that life on the street, the life of the common man, the life of those left behind, has little to do with freedom. A life in which people are trapped in hopelessness. Is this what the woman has longed for for years? Is there such a thing as a raison d’être? Was the release from prison really a liberation?

She decides to take care of some of the needy. She comes to the rescue of the hardworking diners, befriends a hunchbacked street vendor and takes care of a transgender prostitute. The way in which the vulnerable in society try to give direction to their lives, despite all the adversity, shows her that she must not give up hope.

However, every time the rock is almost up, it rolls back down. For example, ‘The Woman Who Left’ waves back and forth between moments of pure happiness to those of great misery. Like an eternal vicious circle from which there is no escape. Man is like the serpent that bites its own tail. Resilience and disaster in one. Kept small by the elite minority. By people like the wife’s ex. The man who almost single-handedly sent her to prison. Which has prevented her from raising her children, making them strangers to her. Who is responsible for so much wicked injustice in the world. The only way out to freedom seems to be through revenge.

The stories told in prison do not appear to serve as an escape outside, but rather to better understand life. And that is exactly what ‘The Woman Who Left’, Golden Lion winner in Venice, does itself. In the almost four hours of running time, the film does not try to make life more beautiful than it is. The typical Asian realism, slow cinema of the purest water, actually gives the space to dive into the raw image in terms of content. The beautiful, meadow and static shots, all in black and white, reveal in great detail how people at the bottom of society are trapped in their own tableaux vivants. There is no escape for the spectator either.

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