4.4 Hot Diaz may have other better works, or probably, it’s just me. But just by seeing this film as a work as an entity in itself, ANG BABAENG HUMAYO showcases Diaz' gift to involve and absorb. Horacia's story argues that even freedom comes with its own cost, just the same. Like in her scene by the bridge, the vast space and emptiness welcome the newly freed with a new form of tragedy. Also, seeing Santos-Concio once again on the big screen is enough for you to take a four-hour trip to the moon and back.
The first frame of Director Lav Diaz’ ANG BABAENG HUMAYO (2016) is an extended exterior shot of shadowed women in a garden. They are preparing the soil for sowing. Around them are armed men with machine guns, silently watching them – however, at a safe and friendly distance. We immediately learn that they’re inside a prison, and that the women are inmates. And so we watch them through that single prolonged shot. Slowly, without us knowing, Diaz takes us away from our seats to be part of the world inside his opening frame. Through its calm and observant photography the film immediately immerses its audiences into the world of Horacia Somorostro.
After serving 30 years, Horacia Somorostro is released from prison. That is because, a fellow inmate admits to the crime that she was accused of, and she is released without questions. She returns to her hometown only to find out that her family has fallen apart, and there is nothing else to do but to sell the land and start a new life. Not long after, Horacia learned that her former lover, Rodrigo Trinidad, was the one who framed her for the crime that she paid thirty years for. As Horacia prepares for a new life, she also begins to plan her revenge to get back at Rodrigo.
ANG BABAENG HUMAYO comes with a cinematography that enhances, than just informs. Take for example the exterior scene by the bridge when Horacia just got out of prison. In this extended extreme long shot, Diaz offers more than just an wider backdrop for his character to establish freedom. Here, he adds archetypal devices to suggest Horacia’s re-birth as she moves from the old life to a new hope.
However, just by looking closely, considering the towering space above and below the subject, matched with an accompanying silence in the shot, it mockingly questions the character with, “what now?” The movements in his frames are a thing of discussion, too. ANG BABAENG HUMAYO comes with an uncommon appeal, thanks to the unusual randomness of his characters.
Even in the more abject scenes, Diaz paints tactfully to avoid an indelicate design to depict the poor. The way to Rodrigo’s guarded mansion is a side street whose pavements house illegal settlers scouring for food and shelter. Though Diaz’ narrative avoids to exploit this theme, he strategically juxtaposes these antithetical devices althroughout the plot to establish such striking truths.
Diaz captures Horacia’s life with a mild commentary on social injustice and the ever growing gap between the rich and the poor. Like in his other films, this one also takes its time, slowly building whatever would come next. In the process, the film pulls the spectators away from their world to join Diaz’ universe and immerse them in his narratives.
Ms. Charo Santos-Concio’s return to the big screen in ANG BABAENG HUMAYO compensates her 17-year hiatus as a leading actress in Philippine Cinema. As Horacia, she delicately offers a silently strong-willed woman whose motivations are willed by her own desire to make a ripple somewhere in the imbalance. Her character’s appearance presents someone who passed through storms and survived, that she somewhat, reminds me of Charlize Theron in MONSTER (2003). Worthy to mention, too, is how Santos-Concio utilizes her story-telling voice for the melancholic and haunting renditions of Horacia’s allegorical tales.
Horacia is a woman of mystery. In the film, she switches multiple faces as she interacts with different characters. She starts off as a homey mentor inside the prison. She transitions to a grieving wife and a desperate mother when she receives the news about her family. Along the way, she transforms to a mannish onlooker outsider Rodrigo’s home every night. Though manlike, she still manifests her motherly nature to help, educate, and transform other people.
The film comes with a rather powerful ensemble that backdrops Horacia’s journey. Seeing John Lloyd-Cruz as the struggling transvestite, Holanda, is a stunning watch. Nonie Buencamino as Kuba offers the film a lighter feel. Kuba’s motivations and characters aren’t as complex as Holanda and Horacia’s, and having him in between the heavier scenes, somewhat neutralises the narrative’s unsmiling take on society.
Michael de Mesa as Rodrigo Trinidad is as silent as the film’s central character, but his presence on-screen manifests more than just character. De Mesa’s technique seemingly echoes a considerable dark past masked by the quiet and the elite. Rodrigo is the film’s lone villain, and he is silently flinty at that. There is never a point in the film where he manifested anything contemptible, nor unfavorable. We only see Rodrigo as someone who is damaging based on Horacia’s past and her judgement, and this is what I think makes this film a class on its own. Here, Diaz somehow explains that villainy is determined by how others defined it for us.
Diaz only makes use of Tolstoy’s GOD SEES THE TRUTH BUT WAITS as a springboard for his 226-minute narrative. He goes further to explore what happens to the character after she gets another chance for freedom. Along the way, he also exposes a decadent society who sees injustices as typical as a circus. This makes the film quite wholistic in its discourse. We see a woman being freed from prison, only to be imprisoned again by a society she never expected and a past she can’t get away with.
The key to the film’s structure is that it’s not about Horacia, but about our relationship with her. See, Diaz stretches his scenes to considerable lengths to pull us out from our reality so we can join Horacia in her journey. Had he made Horacia a central heroine who bravely endures her pains, it would have been too conventional. As we take the trip with her, we develop a certain level of ease (or unease) whenever we are with her on screen. Though her mystery remains, we slowly feel her pains, her regrets, her hope that we even find ourselves empathizing with her need for vengeance.
Diaz may have other better works, or probably, it’s just me. But just by seeing this film as a work as an entity in itself, ANG BABAENG HUMAYO showcases Diaz’ gift to involve and absorb. Horacia’s story argues that even freedom comes with its own cost, just the same. Like in her scene by the bridge, the vast space and emptiness welcome the newly freed with a new form of tragedy. Also, seeing Santos-Concio once again on the big screen is enough for you to take a four-hour trip to the moon and back.
How the film ends is like how it opens. Horacia is back in a garden, however a more metaphorical garth this time. She sows new seeds of hope of finding a lost son, walking circles of unending tracks. Like the seeds sown in the first frame, we know that we’ll never see its harvest, and we can only hope for the best.
4.5 Stars out of 5.