The Long and Short of It
by Jeff Reichert
The Woman Who Left
Dir. Lav Diaz, Philippines, Kino Lorber
It’s unfortunate that some of Lav Diaz’s most vital works are likely to be seen by only a very few. How many have the stamina to sit through seven, eight, nine, and eleven-hour films, all part of his ongoing project of reclaiming recent Filipino history through cinema? Their massive running times—usually justified, at least to these eyes—only make distribution even more challenging. And some of his early films, often shot in black-and-white and on mini-DV and mastered to similarly fragile formats, risk disappearing entirely. The online film viewing website MUBI is currently nearing the end of an invaluable retrospective of Diaz’s films, even if watching nine-hour movies at home is less than ideal. The Film Society of Lincoln Center and the late, great Exit Art have mounted retrospectives in New York, and his films often find acceptance at the regular major festivals, with awards at Locarno, Berlin, and now Venice—a Palme d’Or may only be a matter of time. But with extremely limited DVD availability, and a general lack of torrents, except for some of his earliest, more compromised works, it’s still extremely hard to see Lav Diaz films.
More viewers should have a chance to access his work, for his cinema contains true marvels. Such as watching how a casual scenario in which a few friends carouse drunkenly gradually morphs into a plot to rape a local girl, all done in a nearly hour-long take, in 2006’s Heremias (Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess). Or the way he seamlessly weaves topical political events, vérité-style, and meta-cinematic experiments into his years-in-the-filming family narrative of Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004). Melancholia (2008) and A Century of Birthing (2011) wend their multiple narrative strands together so leisurely that they pleasurably feel like they’re only just starting several hours in. Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) is built around one of recent cinema’s most notable female performances. Further exploration of his filmography reveals that he can succeed at more digestible lengths, as with the 80-minute Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution (2011) or the 70-minute An Investigation on the Night That Won’t Forget. (2012) He even excels at straightforward documentary as evinced by his observational Storm Children: Book One (2014). The relative inaccessibility of his films represents a challenge to viewers and to the necessary scholarship that should be done to help unpack his filmic techniques and track his evolution as an artist.
Diaz wasn’t always the maestro of black-and-white “slow cinema” (a somewhat ridiculous designation for a filmmaker whose movies are so packed with events). His early films, his “pito-pito” works—so named for supposedly being prepped in seven days, filmed in seven days, and edited and posted in seven more—made for schlocky Regal Films subsidiary Good Harvest, reveal a filmmaker uneasily struggling against the impositions of his commercially minded funder. These efforts—Criminal of Barrio Concepcion, Naked Under the Moonlight, and Hesus, rebolusyunaryo (there’s also a curiously titled comedy, Burger Boys, which I haven’t yet tracked down)—were made during the production of Evolution of a Filipino Family. These films betray their roots as films “for them”: they are tawdry (though the rough sex of Naked Under the Moonlight was added without Diaz’s input) and flirt with genre in ways Diaz rarely would again, even as his propensity for long takes pokes through.
A preamble about Diaz’s films feels valuable when discussing his latest, the comparatively bite-sized, almost four-hour The Woman Who Left, as it feels like a work that could start to open him up to a larger U.S. audience in a way that Norte, the End of History, his last film distributed here (and the first that I saw), did not. At the film’s outset, in 1997, in the midst of a national outbreak of kidnappings, Horacio Somorostro (Charo Santos-Concio) is released from prison after 30 years for committing a crime of passion. The reasons for her being freed come as a shock to her: it turns out that she was framed by a prison confidante who carried out the murder at the behest of Horacio’s rich, spurned lover, the maliciously named Rodrigo Trinidad (Michael de Mesa). In its prison setting, The Woman Who Left almost feels like a spiritual sequel to Lino Brocka’s seminal Filipino classic Insiang (though in that film it’s clear who committed its central murder), which is perhaps not such a stretch given that Brocka himself appears in Diaz’s Evolution of a Filipino Family as a target for assassination.
After her release, Horacio learns that her kin have practically disappeared from the Earth—her husband dead, her son gone missing, her former homestead now occupied by the daughter of their old caretaker. She manages to locate her daughter, Minerva (Marjorie Lorico), and their tearful reunion ranks amongst Diaz’s most doleful scenes. Horacio asks that Minerva keep her release a tight secret, though it’s not immediately clear why, and sells whatever possessions and property she has left. Diaz moves through a remarkable amount of narrative information in this, the film’s first movement, and in a relatively short period of time. Earlier films like Heremias and Melancholia barely begin after hours of their protagonists literally wandering through the frame. Here, Diaz seems almost anxious to get his movie rolling.
We leave Horacio for a while at this point, and the scene shifts to an urban setting where we meet new characters: a street vendor selling balut, a Filipino commonplace that consists of a early-stage duck embryo boiled in its shell and eaten whole; Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz), a transgender prostitute; and a young homeless woman seemingly gone mad. These three subsist in the slums surrounding the alabaster fortress where, due to the kidnapping epidemic, Rodrigo Trinidad has taken shelter, except for sporadic visits to the local Catholic church to receive absolution. Horacio turns up here before long, sporting dark jeans, a black t-shirt that reveals her prison tats, and a ball cap that hides her hair. She introduces herself as Renata to this motley assortment, and though it becomes clear that vengeance is on her mind, her interactions with these three, especially her tender ministrations to a battered Hollanda in the wake of a rape, slowly shift her goals away from revenge, even as her opportunities for enacting it increase.
Unlike the murderous narcissist at the center of Norte, a loose take on Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, Horacio, inspired by the merchant Ivan Dmitrich Aksionov from Tolstoy’s short story “God Sees the Truth, But Waits” is a protagonist who demands our emotional investment—Diaz isn’t so austere a filmmaker as to place his characters at arm’s length from us, and, indeed, the duration of many of his films is exceeded only by their acute empathy for these troubled souls. He’s helped greatly in The Woman Who Left by Santos-Concio; though she retired from acting for decades, her work here, steely and murderous in one scene, motherly and kind in the next, is yet another in a line of show-stopping central female performances in Diaz films. Horacio and Hollanda are two of Diaz’s most memorable creations, and the sentiment of their warm scenes together, including a late-film impromptu sing-along, is perhaps more representative of Diaz as a filmmaker and melodramatist than the forbidding reputation he’s developed.
For a filmmaker who has obsessively documented all the gradations of national suffering, most often in grainy black-and-white, Diaz’s films are often laced with pockets of warmth. The reunion that concludes the many trials of Evolution of a Filipino Family is one of the biggest-hearted gestures in recent cinema. The tale of the wrongly imprisoned Joaquin in Norte follows a man ascending into a kind of saintliness. The Woman Who Left represents Diaz’s most immediate paean to kindness, even if it leaves his re-reformed protagonist on an ambiguous note. Diaz’s recent spate of festival awards (From What Comes Before in Locarno, A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery in Berlin, The Woman Who Left in Venice) have earned him praise from none other than Philippines president and admitted murder Rodrigo Duterte. Does this mean Diaz has arrived? I’m sure the irony here isn’t lost on a filmmaker who’s been so concerned throughout his career with how crime and punishment have reverberated across his nation’s history, and continue to do so.