1997. With radio reports on the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa as her soundtrack, Horacia Somorostro (Charo Santos) tills the land, then continues with her daily routine consisting of teaching other inmates proper Tagalog grammar and telling them stories that she herself writes during her free time. It’s been 30 years since she was incarcerated for a crime she didn’t commit, but today marks the end of her three-decade sentence. Her guilt-ridden friend Petra (Shamaine Buencamino) confesses that it was really her who did it, before taking her own life. Losing consciousness upon hearing the news, Horacia wakes up a free woman and asks everyone to keep her newfound liberty a secret. She reconnects with her daughter and vows to find her eldest son who has been missing since she went to jail. And then she plots her revenge, through the course of which she crosses paths with a perpetually drunk transvestite named Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz), a lost soul who will change her life for the better.
Word of warning: This film is almost four hours long, like a flight from Manila to Singapore, but with turbulence of the psychological kind instead of atmospheric. Ang Babaeng Humayo has a rhythm distinct from that of mainstream movies, a cadence you have to tap into so you can get used to its glacial pacing, appreciating each scene as if it’s moving art. The first hour establishes the premise by introducing Horacia, wrongfully accused of something so atrocious that simply doesn't match her saintly demeanor. The second hour serves as the preparation for the revenge plot, presenting a character or two and giving some clues on their roles in the end game. Hour #3 focuses on the interaction between Horacia and Hollanda, with the main plot taking the back seat to develop the relationship between the two characters. The final one goes around in circles, making you question where this narrative intends to go, before it takes a turn for the semi-surreal as it lays down an anti-climactic cliffhanger to end your four-hour journey.
A mainstream moviegoer will not fully appreciate this movie. Case in point are the two ladies sitting beside me, voicing out their search for common Philippine cinema tropes loud enough for everyone to hear. John Lloyd is her missing son! Everything is just a dream! She is in a psych ward! For an audience that has been spoiled by predictable plots where every contrived twist has to be spoon-fed in order to be appreciated, such different flavor of unconventional cinema can be quite difficult to digest. For those well-versed in the medium, perhaps Ang Babaeng Humayo will come off as a little bit too indulgent, not to mention unnecessarily lengthy. For everyone else, there are many things to admire, such as the subtlety of some scenes as well as the symbolism that they espouse.
The reason for filming everything in black and white can vary. It can be an issue of practicality, necessity, or even just style. A homage, maybe? One can also theorize that it is part of the narrative itself. A reflection of Horacia’s psyche as a result of all the years that she had to endure for the muder that she didn’t do? A jab on moral ambiguity, a reminder that black and white is actually gray? Aesthetics? Indeed, there are several scenes wherein the camera lingers, concentrating on what seems to be a black and white still on a canvas, until a shadow moves ten seconds later revealing someone you thought wasn’t there all along. Diaz plays with shadows really well, and the imagery is as vivid as it is metaphoric.
Santos’ last film outing was in 1993, and her last major acting stint was in a soap opera that ended in 1999. With the film set in 1997, it’s as if the premise mirrors her very own personal life. This does not mean to say that ascending the ranks of a giant TV network’s hierarchy is synonymous to a three-decade jail sentence, and it is perhaps an exaggeration to suggest such a theory. Nevertheless, the similarity in terms of circumstances between the actress and the role is just so tempting not to mention. The primary difference is that Horacia is not so sure if her reintroduction to society is going to be accepted or not, while Santos’ return to acting is evidently a long-anticipated comeback worthy of praise. She probably missed the big screen during all those time operating behind the scenes. The feeling seems to be mutual.
There is this one scene with Cruz in full on tranny mode, fake boobs and all, singing and dancing to Donna Cruz’s Kapag Tumibok Ang Puso. If you have seen him on ASAP or elsewhere that doesn't require acting, you’d think that this is a break from character, he being himself and just doing an ad-lib. But the scene serves as some sort of breather, arguably the only light moment in the entirety of the film’s four-hour run. It's more like the much needed intermission of a two-act play that came two hours too late, that one lively and audible sigh in an ocean of deafening silence. It’s nice to see Cruz trying his hand at the indie scene. He has already proven his bankability as a mainstream actor, but he can’t be a matinee idol forever. Perhaps, this reverse Coco Martin route is the best option for him after all, doing the rounds of the international festival scene, trading formula for a more varied choice of roles to expand his acting repertoire.
Rating a film that has just won the Golden Lion in Venice is a tricky task. At the back of my head, I feel like I am obliged to give it something no lower than perfect, lest I be trolled hard for being a wannabe. But I am no film critic. The clovers I give, at best, are nothing but an arbitrary representation of how I enjoyed the movie. In the end, I’m just a moviegoer who gave a damn. From the point of view of someone caught in between, Ang Babaeng Humayo is just not palatable enough for the general public, but it does succeed in showcasing a certain brand of film ingenuity aiming to elevate contemporary Philippine cinema at a time when such a move is badly needed to salvage whatever is still there left to save.