Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz has been a darling in world cinema for roughly a couple decades now, but only with his 2013 film Norte, the End of History did he finally reach an audience outside his home country and the international film-festival circuit. Those with a deep familiarity of his work have generally spoken of Norte as Diaz at his most broadly accessible. That accessibility, however, refers neither to a forbiddingly avant-garde visual style nor an obscurely nonlinear narrative approach, but to sheer length. By comparison to his six-hour 2011 film Century of Birthing or, supremely, his 10-hour 2004 work Evolution of a Filipino Family, Norte ran a relatively trim four hours and 10 minutes, and his newest film, The Woman Who Left—only his second film to get an official U.S. theatrical release—is even shorter, at three hours and 46 minutes. To put it simply, he makes long movies, and that naturally limits his commercial appeal on a practical level, at the very least.
His pigeonholing as an art-house filmmaker is a bit ironic considering how narrative-driven his films often are. Stationary long takes are Diaz’s usual aesthetic mode, with the camera patiently taking in all the activity occurring in front of it—and with his preference for wide shots rather than close-ups, there are usually lots to take in beyond just main characters interacting with each other. He’s not the only filmmaker to work in this “slow cinema” mode, of course, but with Diaz’s attention to character detail and social context, his long takes feel like the cinematic equivalent of paragraphs in a book.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Norte, the End of History was itself inspired by an actual novel, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The Woman Who Left is based on a considerably shorter literary work—Leo Tolstoy’s short story “God Sees the Truth, But Waits”—but Diaz uses it as a springboard for a meditation on not only the violent history of the Philippines, but on more universal themes of faith and morality.
The political angle of The Woman Who Left is made explicit from the start, with a radio broadcast on the soundtrack that indicates the year in which Diaz’s film is set: 1997, just after Britain’s handover of Hong Kong back to China, and also a time rife with kidnappings-for-ransom in the Philippines, with many of the targets rich Filipino-Chinese. Diaz has often tackled the harsh realities of his nation’s present by dramatizing its past, and his new film follows suit. Though it takes place in the late 1990s, Diaz is implicitly addressing the current, murder-ridden Rodrigo Duterte regime—and, through its generally virtuous main character, Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio), offering a figure suggesting the kind of empathetic humanity that could point the way out of the Philippines’ current crisis.
Emphasis on “generally” regarding Horacia’s saintliness, because there is one major complicating factor: her thirst for revenge against ex-boyfriend Rodrigo Trinidad (Michael De Mesa), who she discovers was the one responsible for getting her sent to prison for 30 years for a crime she didn’t commit. Prison is where we meet Horacia at the beginning of the film: Over her years of imprisonment, she has become a den mother for her fellow inmates, and her goodness leads the guilt-ridden Petra (Shamaine Buencamino) to finally confess to being coerced by Rodrigo to frame Horacia for murder, thus ensuring Horacia’s belated release (while Petra herself commits suicide after divulging her sins). Now left with nothing other than a deceased husband, a daughter who still has doubts about her mother’s innocence, and a missing son who may not even be alive, Horacia finds her thoughts turning to revenge against Rodrigo, now a wealthy underworld boss living in a highly secure mansion who nevertheless donates generously to a local church and occasionally expresses to a priest a measure of guilt for the crimes he has committed.
Rodrigo is nowhere near as prominent a character as Horacia is, but his brief appearances—a rare venture outside his mansion to buy some balut from local seller Magbabalot (Nonie Buencamino), a couple scenes in the aforementioned church—are tantalizingly suggestive. Though Horacia approaches life from the perspective of a religious believer, and Rodrigo from the polar opposite, both characters are, in fact, similar: people who put up virtuous fronts to mask darker underlying intentions. Unlike Horacia, Rodrigo verbalizes his self-awareness of his conflicting sides to that priest; for Horacia, her more violent side comes out in smaller but equally telling actions: a gun purchase, a beatdown given to a thief threatening a family, a challenge to Harry to punch her in the face. Such moments add a layer of ambiguity to everything she does in the film, as we question the sincerity of her kindness, whether she’s playing a long game in order to pull off a revenge plot.
Such ambiguity is reinforced by Diaz’s aforementioned long takes and stationary set-ups, his camera (he shot the film himself) adopting an omniscient stance that leaves all judgments to the viewer. If we’re meant to draw our own conclusions about Horacia based solely on her actions, then we can’t help but note the generosity she shows to a series of outsiders—not only Magbabalot and a local crazy, Mameng (Jean Judith Javier), but especially to Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz), a self-hating transgender prostitute with whom Horacia forms the closest bond they both have in their present. A sharp critique of Philippine society subtly hovers into view during these interactions—a society riven with stark class divisions, with the lower-class at the mercy of the elite as well as a government that could seemingly care less about their welfare. That dichotomy, though, can also be seen in Horacia’s choice of clothing: conventionally feminine dresses during the day; a T-shirt, pants and a cap at night when she’s interacting the most with this pop-up, lower-class community.
Compared to the atmospheric moodiness and occasional flights of dream-like fantasy of his earlier films, The Woman Who Left is pretty straightforward, with only Diaz’s silvery black-and-white cinematography, one sequence of handheld camerawork, and a few shots that play inventively with focus to depart from its overall story- and character-driven thrust. And yet, the characters here are so vividly drawn and performed, and the contemplative mood so remarkably sustained, that the film casts a genuinely suspenseful and mesmerizing spell over the span of its nearly four hours. Don’t be daunted by its length: at its best, Diaz’s film has the richness of a great, wide-ranging, deeply immersive novel.
Director: Lav Diaz
Writer: Lav Diaz
Starring: Charo Santos-Concio, John Lloyd Cruz, Nonie Buencamino, Shamaine Buencamino, Michael de Mesa, Kakai Bautista
Release Date: May 19, 2017
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.