Toronto 2016: The Woman Who Left review


By his own gargantuan standards, Lav Diaz’s Golden Lion winner The Woman Who Left is a mere morsel. His second picture of 2016 after the nine-hour epic A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, which premiered at Berlin, this one clocks in at less than four hours and sheds much of Lullaby’s metaphysical weight. Instead, it tells the comparatively straightforward story of Horacia (the incredible Charo Santos) who is unexpectedly released from prison after serving thirty years for a crime she didn’t commit, and who sets off in search of vengeance against the former lover who put her there.

If this all sounds a little bit genre, that’s because it is – of course, that’s ‘genre’ as far as it operates in Diaz’s meandering narratives and glacial pacing. The underlying premise is the stuff of revenge thriller dreams, and Horacia vaguely resembles a vampire as she stalks around the town after dark, ominous in converse all stars and chiaroscuro monochrome. Another character jokes that maybe she is a vampire, then hits closer to home with the alternative suggestion of Batman. She’s a motherly teacher in the correctional institute at the beginning but is transformed into an avenging angel with the revelation that her ex, the brilliantly-named Rodrigo Trinidad (Michael De Mesa), framed her because he was jealous. Indeed, her subsequent adoptions of different names for use by different people begin to create the impression of a splintering psyche and Santos’ magnetic performance is one of many masks.

By day it is that of a pillar of the community, a white shawl over her head and a open heart and door for any misfits that may seek refuge – in particular Hollanda (John Lloyd Cruz), a trans prostitute who is brutally attacked and raped and convalesces in Horacia’s care. By night she wanders around in cap and jeans, tough and streetwise, surreptitiously collecting information on her target. In certain moments, Santos is allowed to let these personas go and the crippling pain and rage are allowed to spill onto her face or even, in one memorable scene in which she sings West Side Story’s Somewhere to Hollanda, a smile. Any such moments of hope are swiftly squashed, however. As the tragedy of the situation takes hold, Diaz reduces his depth of field to create a shadowy world disconcertingly out of focus.

The injustice she has suffered is just one of those experienced in a bleeding country. Radio commentary sets the scene as 1997 and concurrent to Hong Kong’s transition back to Chinese rule. It’s a brief nod to Diaz’s regular discourse with the legacy of colonialism in the Philippines but it’s quickly superseded by recurring newsflashes about the high rate of kidnappings and a “pattern of violence” sweeping the nation. If the reduced runtime has proved key in any area, though, it is forcing containment on Diaz’s roving vision. There is a definitely lag The Woman Who Left’s middle section regardless, but its specific frame of reference sees it build to a bleak and powerful conclusion, if one devoid of much hope.

The Toronto Film Festival takes place from 8-18 September. For our coverage follow this link.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson