Charo Santos-Concio in Lav Diaz’s “The Woman Who Left,” which opens at Lincoln Center on May 19. | KINO LORBER
For the past 10 years or so, Filipino director Lav Diaz has been a fixture on the international film festival circuit, although his films have been difficult to see in New York until fairly recently. There’s one major reason for this: their length. Diaz has even made an 11-hour film.
At last, American distributors have started taking chances on his work, but the two Diaz films released in the US, “Norte, the End of History” and “The Woman Who Left,” each runs close to four hours. However, as the blog “The Art(s) of Slow Cinema” pointed out, such duration shouldn’t be an issue in the era of binge-watching. If people can watch four hours’ worth of HBO programs in a row, they should have the patience for a film like “The Woman Who Left.”
That’s a good idea in theory, but the demands of “The Woman Who Left” are quite different from sitting through four hours of “Game of Thrones.” It’s true that the former doesn’t require one to put up with any on-screen rape scenes, but it does feature a style far better suited to movie theaters than home viewing. I’m ashamed to admit that I’m not particularly familiar with Filipino cinema — for instance, I’ve only seen one film by the late gay master Lino Brocka, widely considered to be the Philippines’ greatest director — and I’m sure I’m missing out on Diaz’ indigenous influences. However, to me, his work seems to combine elements of neo-realism, especially its flirtations with melodrama, with the East Asian master-shot style of directors like Tsai Ming-liang.
Filipino director Lav Diaz draws on eclectic influences in tale of wrongly convicted ex-con
Wrongly imprisoned for 30 years, Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio) is freed after the woman who really committed the crime kills herself. She discovers that she was framed by her wealthy ex-boyfriend Rodrigo Trinidad (Michael de Mesa.) Now as corrupt as he is rich, he lives in seclusion, scared of the kidnappings that have become an epidemic in the Philippines and asks a priest, “Why does evil overcome my soul?” One night, Horacia helps a rape victim, Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz), who is referred to as a gay man in the film but would probably identify as some variation on trans in contemporary America. Hollanda, though suffering from severe self-hatred, feels a debt to Horacia and wants to help her as much as possible.
A film like “The Woman Who Left” is grounded in a very real place and time: the Philippines in 1997. It opens with a radio broadcast describing the handover of Hong Kong to China and discussing tensions between ethnic Filipinos and Chinese-Filipinos. One of its characters sells the local delicacy of “balot” (a developing bird embryo). However, the story, while drawn from Tolstoy, could also have been inspired by any number of film noirs or crime novels from around the world. There’s a tension between the extremely arty way Diaz tells his story and the pulpy material at its root.
Duration may be the most original element Diaz brings to his style, but it’s far from the only one. He never moves the camera and uses very long takes. He has a penchant for nighttime black-and-white cinematography, sometimes lit and blocked so that one can’t make out the characters’ faces. The idea of a close-up or a quick cut seems completely anathema to him. This is hardcore austere cinema: while Diaz is Filipino, he probably has more in common with Portuguese director Pedro Costa than a somewhat more commercial arthouse director from his own country like Brillante Mendoza.
I suppose it’s inevitable that “The Woman Who Left” would turn into a revenge drama, but it’s a very oblique one that dodges both action-movie thrills and “revenge will corrupt your soul” moralizing. The film winds up in seriously enigmatic territory closer to Michelangelo Antonioni than the noir roots with which it flirts. Antonioni, however, charted the emptiness that accompanied the rise of Italy’s upper middle class; Diaz is charting the downfall of the Philippines’ lower class.
It’s not giving much away to say that much of his ending splinters into disconnected fragments. One thing remains constant throughout the 229 minutes of “The Woman Who Left”: an anger at human cruelty and the people who abuse each other’s goodwill, without completely demonizing figures like Rodrigo. While set 20 years ago, its bleak view of the Philippines as a kind of nocturnal junkyard is undoubtedly just as true under the Duterte regime as it was in 1997.
THE WOMAN WHO LEFT | Directed by Lav Diaz | Kino Lorber | In Filipino with English subtitles | Opens May 19 | Film Society of Lincoln Center, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 W. 65th St. | filmlinc.org