Ang Babaeng Humayo concerns Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio), a woman who has spent the last three decades in prison for a crime she didn't commit. It is 1997, around the time that Hong Kong was being turned over to China. A fellow convict, wracked with guilt and remorse, suddenly confesses to the crimes of which Horacia is accused. Horacia is a free woman, and she must go about the business of reuniting with family, and perhaps getting revenge on the man that cost her thirty years of her life.
There is a metatextual quality to this movie that might be unavoidable for anyone who has been a viewer of Filipino Cinema for the last few decades. This just isn't any actress in the lead role. This is Charo Santos-Concio, the woman who has basically steered the ship of mainstream cinema as we know it today. When you hear her voiceover in the film, it might be difficult not to think about Maalaala Mo Kaya, the long-running TV show that has made her voice one of the most recognizable in the country. And when she interacts with John Lloyd Cruz in this picture, one might start thinking of the vast context of their relationship, the strange surrogacy that show business might bring.
This is an extra layer of context to a film already rich with layers. The movie uses a Leo Tolstoy story as a jumping off point. It takes the premise and turns it into a grand meditation on identity and forgiveness. Horacia has to ask herself who she is in a world that she no longer knows. Her husband is long gone, and she hasn't had much contact with her children. She doesn't even really know where they are. All that she really has to hold on to is the knowledge that she was wronged, that there is a man out there who intentionally did her harm, and has paid no consequence for it. She has never stopped being kind, in spite of her horrible circumstances, but in the absence of anything else, she is willing to give up that last shred of herself in order to regain some measure of control over her life.
And so she allows herself to take on a new identity. She hides in plain sight, becoming a fixture in the environs of her prey, in the process getting to know all the people on the fringes of her target's affluence. She befriends a transvestite (John Lloyd Cruz) who has also left behind a former life, seeking some sort of redemption in conscious self-destruction. Their relationship becomes the heart of this picture. Their interactions consistently provide the film its richest, most affecting moments. And it isn't just because of the two actors playing these characters. It is still worth noting, however, that both are terrific in this film. Charo Santos-Concio returns to screens with quiet yet overwhelming dignity. And John Lloyd Cruz delivers what appears to be a studied performance that feels totally natural.
As with all Lav Diaz films, this collection of seemingly small moments coalesce into something much larger, the narrative eventually taking the shape of a discourse on our national identity. This is a story of systemic injustice, of the crushing banality of evil. It studies a society wherein the pious and the sinister may not necessarily be different people. It a story of how even the kindest person may turn criminal, and how justice may just seem so eternally out reach. In its still, beautifully composed black and white frames, the film often captures multiple facets of Filipino life, the stark interplay between light and shadow standing as potent visual metaphor in any given scene.
Ang Babaeng Humayo is in some ways the simplest of all Lav Diaz films. It is certainly one of the most straightforward of his stories: it is, at its most basic, a revenge story. The magic of the film lies in how it takes that simplicity and turns it into something much bigger. This film feels like an event, its various elements, both textual and metatextual, add up to something unmistakably momentous. It all points to something greater than itself, a profound understanding of who we are as a nation at this point in time, even if the film is set nearly twenty years in the past. At some point, the film just lands, touching parts deep inside that one might not even know are there.