We see Charo Santos-Concio sitting on an old rickety chair a few minutes into the movie Ang Babaeng Humayo by Filipino director Lav Diaz. She writes what seems to be a letter, a poem, or a short story. To whom she's writing it to, we can't know for certain. But as the words flow from her pen, we hear a narration from a voice that is familiar to anyone who has ever seen an episode of Maalaala Mo Kaya in the last 25 years. It's the voice of course of none other than "Ate Charo," the host of the longest-running drama anthology in the Philippines.
But this is Charo Santos-Concio in a way that you've never seen her and in a form that you probably thought you'd never see.
In the Golden Lion award-winning movie at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival, Ate Charo plays the role of Horacia, a former grade school teacher who gets imprisoned in a penal colony for 30 long and agonizing years. Thirty years in prison is too long a time for anyone, but it's even longer if you're innocent. Petra (Shamaine Buencamino), Horacia's friend inside prison, confesses that it was she who committed the murder that put Horacia in jail. The mastermind? A certain Rodrigo Trinidad (Michael de Mesa) who happens to be a jilted ex-lover out for revenge. Now that Horacia is finally released, she sets out to find her family that she hasn't seen in three decades. More importantly, she's out to seek the justice that has thus far eluded her.
Ate Charo is tired of reading your letters! Akala niyo ba kayo lang may problema?!
Confession: this is actually my first time to watch a movie by Lav Diaz. I've always been curious about his movies but at the same time I find the thought of watching an eight-hour black-and-white movie about the Philippine Revolution to be intimidating. With all the buzz going around about Ang Babaeng Humayo, my inquisitiveness finally got the better of me. Diaz has a reputation for long movies and I've always wondered how someone can make a movie that's eight hours long. Anong laman nun? That's almost the total running time of a season of Game of Thrones! Namatay at nabuhay na si Jon Snow niyan, nakapag-ahit na ng balbas at tinubuan na ulit pero hindi ka pa rin tapos manood!
After seeing Ang Babaeng Humayo, I finally understand how he was able to do it. The movie is good, there's no question about it. There's a reason that it won Gold Lion, trouncing opuses from all over the world. But clocking in at exactly three hours and 37 minutes, the movie can be inaccessible for some. It's not even about the length of the film (Lord of the Rings nga mahaba rin eh) but the style in which it was rendered. The director takes his time, sometimes featuring two-minute scenes (or what feels like it) wherein Horacia looks outside the window or sits still on top of her husband's tomb.
I wouldn't call it excessive since Diaz always does this with purpose, but it requires the audience to be patient and to have the stamina for it. This is something that a lot of critics have said about him and his movies. But I say this not as a form of indignation but as a way to describe his style. Ganun talaga siya gumawa ng pelikula eh, I don't think anyone anyone is in any position to say that that's wrong. Everyone's free to tell their own story the way they want it to be told. Some can tell their stories in four minutes, others like Diaz do it in four hours. Ang Babaeng Humayo is rewarding and is a great piece of Filipino cinema, but it might prove to be taxing to a casual moviegoers.
Under the purity of that white veil is an intent to kill
But what most audiences will probably appreciate are the stellar performances in the movie. From the lead stars to the supporting roles, Ang Babaeng Humayo features a cast that boasts of prolific careers. Joining Charo Santos-Concio are John Lloyd Cruz, Nonie Buencamino, among others. Some of the them like Shamaine Buencamino and Michael de Mesa are only featured on the screen for a handful of minutes, but they were still able to leave a mark with great performances. Nonie, who other people might not immediately recognize in this movie, portrays a hunchback balut vendor who provides some of the more light moments of the film. He shares the screen with Horacia for most of the film and is charismatic despite his deformity.
How many times have we heard the words "ibang John Lloyd ang makikita natin dito" everytime a Lloydie movie comes out? But for Ang Babaeng Humayo, there's really no denying that audiences will see a different and almost unrecognizable John Lloyd Cruz. He plays Hollanda, an epileptic transgender with a death wish that befriends Horacia. The two develop a relationship that proves pivotal as the story unfolds.
His performance as Hollanda shows why John Lloyd is one of the most bankable and critically-acclaimed actors in Philippine cinema today. Aside from his star-power, people watch his movies because he's able to inhabit challenging roles convincingly. We've known him more for his "Popoy" roles in romantic movies like One More Chance, but he's recently tried his hand at more challenging roles where he's actually doing a good job at. Hopefully we'll get to see more roles like that from him.
In the movie 'A Last Chance,' Popoy and Basha experience marital problems
yet again when he starts to dress like her
But the real star of the show, literally and figuratively, is Charo Santos Concio. Ang Babaeng Humayo was not chosen as our entry to the Best Foreign Film category of the Academy Awards. But there is some talk that their trying to get her considered for the Best Actress category. In my opinion, she certainly did enough in this movie to at least be considered for a nomination. But even if she doesn't end up being nominated at the Oscars, it's almost a certainty that she'll get recognition from other award-giving bodies. Her performance as the tormented Horacia has a lot of layers to it. As Horacia the former schoolteacher, you can see the gentleness in her. The way she quietly sobs as she finds out what happened to her family. The way she helps out the people she encounters even if she really doesn't have to. It's reminiscent of the Ate Charo we've known her to be.
However there's also another aspect to the role, that she was able to portray very convincingly. It's the Horacia that was wrongly accused and was hardened by 30 years of incarceration. It's interesting for audiences to see her navigate between those two personalities because Horacia is a very conflicted character. On one hand she understandably wants to seek revenge. Who wouldn't, right? Maghintay ka nga lang ng matagal sa pila ng banyo gusto mo na mag-beast mode eh. Paano pa yung makulong ka for a crime you didn't commit? But can you really get yourself to do that if it goes against your better nature? These are but some of the things that the movie succeeds in making audiences think about.
Ang Babaeng Humayo's win at the Venice Film Festival and Ma Rosa's victory at the Cannes Film Festival only proves that Filipino films are finally being recognized. And the involvement of mainstream actors like John Lloyd Cruz and a head of studio like Charo Santos-Concio in independent film projects may signify that major studios are finally giving independent cinema the support it deserves. There are a lot of poignant stories to tell in Philippine cinema and all they need is an audience. Now it's up to us to support and breathe life into it.
8/10. While terrific, this slow-burning revenge movie might be hard for casual audiences to enjoy because of the director's trademark style. But those who have 4 hours to spare will be rewarded with great performances by a cast led by Charo Santos-Concio.
Rey de la Cruz Jr. likes talking about films as much as he likes watching them. He runs www.reyview.org, a site that provides Filipino moviegoers with reviews written in a voice that is uniquely Pinoy.