STOP10: When all is not Black and White in 'The Woman Who Left'

I have a fondness for what is called Slow Cinema or as my friends like to call it: movies where nothing appears to be happening. These are films that place emphasis on long takes, and are often minimalist stylistically with an observational tone. While these films move at a atypical pace compared to more conventional cinema, there is something to be found, a sense of naturalism and sensitivity to the human condition and psyche.

Usually my go-to to watch such films come from East Asia. The master filmmaker, Hou Hsiao-Hsien is still doing good work in Taiwan and quite recently, I’ve discovered the Japanese filmmaker, Kore-eda Hirokazu. But when I had watched the Philippines filmmaker, Lav Diaz’s work, The Woman Who Left (Ang Babaeng Humanyo), a beautiful and stunning epic, deeply personal and sensitive, a masterpiece in its own right, I realised that I had been a toad in the well all along. 

One thing to note about the Philippines filmmaker Lav Diaz is that his feature films are incredibly long. Often, his feature length films would exceed four hours. His riveting drama film that won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival; The Woman Who Left is an abnormally in Mr Diaz’s filmography, failing to exceed the four hour mark, though still clocking in at a rather long, three hour, forty-eight minutes. 

The film follows Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio) who has been released from prison after a period of imprisonment for a crime she did not commit. She finds out that her former rich lover, Rodrigo Trinidad (Michael de Mesa) was the one who had her framed for the crime. Disillusioned by the inequality power and privilege between people of different financial statuses and by, Horacia plots her revenge.

This is a story that clearly has some political concerns about the country, the privileged and powerful abusing their power and a wave of kidnapping incidents targeting such people. We, the viewer are placed into a period where tension overwhelms the nation. I have to admit that while I am not able to fully appreciate the political context, through a powerful use of a minimalist and stoic film grammar and dark and gritty aesthetic, I was able to very clearly feel the sense of hopelessness and anxiety plaguing the country of unresolved repressions and a lingering grief. But really, this movie is about Horacia, this is her story. The picture provides a portrait of a strong, yet quiet woman who is placed in the setting of a deeply troubled nation, seeking to commit a devastating revenge that challenges a conventional morality. 

We follow her struggles and process as she makes decision after decision, viewing the darkness and also the light in her life. 

While in all honesty, the film’s story drags quite a bit and it gets quite predictable at moments. What made the The Woman Who Left an exceptional experience for me are the little moments. Like when a woman searches a room with only the shine of a flashlight within the darkness of the night or when Horacia is let left alone to weep on screen for an unusually long period of time when any other film would make a cut.

Lighting a scene naturalistically is typically frowned upon especially in a typical film production, where scenes are lit by numerous and elaborate lighting set-ups and making that decision to shoot in such a manner gives the film a naturalistic tone and feel that grounds the story and the characters within. 

While the cinematography in The Woman Who Left is fantastic and beautiful to look at, it does break and subvert many cinematography conventions that conventional films follow and at times, they may subtract from the viewing experience. It doesn’t help that the digital cinematography in the film is rather explicit with the images looking a little too sharp and crisp at times. 

While these might make the cinematography look amateurish, and honestly it kind of does occasionally,  I believe the pros of the film outweigh its flaws. The story is both thought provoking and emotionally engaging, with brilliant scenes and moments of grief and beauty that continue pop into my mind. 

And the film's bold aesthetic of a black and white visuals, dark chiaroscuro aesthetic, fantastic sense of framing coupled with an abundance of long takes and an editing style of letting shots linger, the film has a unique stylistic visual sense and tone that is beautifully contradictory, feeling both naturalistic yet stylised, reflecting the complex conditions of the characters. 

Though the film's slow approach to telling its story might put some off and it is quite understandable if it does, if one has the patience to sit through the film's duration, the brilliance of the picture will shine through. This is a masterwork of modern cinema. 

Check out which other films made our list of the 10 Most Life-Changing Southeast Asian films.

Written by Timothy Ong

Timothy is a Film, Sound and Video student at the School of Ngee Ann Polytechnic. He enjoys watching movies, doing the occasional writing and looking for loose change at vending machines. 
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