Disappearing into the Dark
Before Horacia first steps back into society, ending a 30-year jail sentence for a crime she did not commit, she asks the jail warden to promise her that no one will learn of her release. Her first actions outside of jail are handing the deed of her house over to her maid and scheduling a meeting with her daughter. She asks both of these individuals to keep the same promise. Throughout Lav Diaz's The Woman Who Left (2016), Horacia struggles to handle two identities and, as a result, maintain her sense of self. She takes up the alias of "Renata" and walks the streets of Philippines' La Union province, searching for Rodrigo Trinidad, the upper class former lover who framed her. In Diaz's distinctly sparse and understated style, the film forgoes clichéd melodramatic plot elements and genre tropes to concentrate more on Horacia's internal struggle with her desire for justice. Her conversations with street loners about morality, discrete inquiries of Trinidad's whereabouts while still maintaining a semblance of a daily lifestyle (cooking, washing, going to church), comprise the rest of the movie.
The idea of Horacia having experienced a form of death in prison and starting an after-life once released were part of Diaz's initial conception of the character. He said:
Horacia's character goes beyond the terrestrial. . . In a way, she has a full understanding of life, and the way by which she enters different personas in order to deal with other beings is a type of transcendence. You can look at this film as some form of hagiography.1
In this sense, the film's premise alludes to supernatural revenge thrillers like Jeffrey Zucker's Ghost (1990) or Kanedo Shindo's Kuroneko (1968), but keeps the elements of the genre as merely metaphorical undertones. It is more concerned with the idea of its central character reconciling the past than it is with carrying out an actual act of vengeance. Diaz notes his main inspiration came from Leo Tolstoy's short story God Sees the Truth, But Waits, where the central character Ivan Aksinov is wrongly convicted of murder and banished to Siberia, where he turns to God in hope of finding peace and where he eventually meets the real murderer who confesses to his crime and clears Aksinov's name. Both works feature individuals who must conciliate with their suffering at the hands of injustice but, unlike Tolstoy, Diaz is not a comforting optimist and the characters in his films are generally left in shambles and contemplating an uncertain future. As A. O. Scott observed in his review of the film, Diaz is "skeptical of the possibility of redemption."2 The minimalist and tranquil presentation of La Union at night, characterized by sparsely populated streets and high-contrast black and white which hides the majority of Horacia's surroundings in darkness, belies both the turbulent political undercurrents and the unrest that exists within Horacia. She becomes lost in her state of anonymity and tries to counter by finding companions in equally forgotten individuals, such as a balot3 vendor nicknamed "Hunchback," a schizophrenic homeless girl named Petra and an epileptic trans prostitute named Hollanda who becomes her closest confidant.
The striking contrasts in Diaz's use of black and white cinematography synchronise with Horacia's competing personas in the daytime, where she is nervous and more exposed, and at night, where she is comfortable and hidden. Diaz also utilizes different visual techniques for day and night scenes to make Horacia inconspicuous to the viewer. In the day, she is position off-centre, with her back turned or in the middle of a crowd. In the film's night sequences, she is disguised in men's clothing and hidden in the shadows. It is here at night, dancing under a streetlight, where Horacia first witnesses Hollanda. It's a seminal moment of two characters in the midst of an internal crisis. Hollanda, having lost a meaningful place in her family and a society prejudiced against trans people, commits to slowly killing herself, but conversely finds a sense of freedom in nihilism. The art direction of the scene, with Horacia's silhouette just barely noticeable in the dark of the foreground looking at Hollanda illuminated in harsh white, is the most direct symbolic gesture by Diaz to establish his film as one of opposing dichotomies.
Identity crises and roleplay are not new to his cinema. In Diaz's Melancholia (2008), a film deeply entrenched in the fraud of human relationships, we are constantly left guessing who each character really is and which one of them is putting us on at any given time. In The Woman Who Left, we see two characters who are in constant doubt. Horacia's aim to kill Trinidad is resolute, but she still breaks down in many sequences, weary of the burden she has put on herself and realising that she now possesses a skin and soul that is not truly hers but one conceived purely through hatred and consumed by thoughts of revenge. Towards the end of the movie, Hollanda mentions that Horacia was "the only person to show me pure kindness." From their first interaction, under the streetlight, where Horacia held Hollanda close as she fell into a seizure, the bond between the two was built on their mutual pain. In their struggle to reconcile with their past, they latch onto a single nihilistic goal from which they both know they will never return. "I came here to die," Hollanda says. She is just as damaged and betrayed as Horacia and just as exhausted in finding a meaning beyond the rot. Almost all of their interactions occur at night and it is the only time when they are not required to be anybody. They don't have to put on a facade. Yet even in friendship they have difficulty in fully revealing themselves. Horacia never tells Hollanda about her past and her jail sentence.
The Woman Who Left is a film of contradictions to genre norms. It is a ghost story without a ghost. A revenge tale which resists violence. It is a film painted in blinding whites and pitch blacks which blend into ambiguous greys. Diaz gives Trinidad his own scene to say his piece. Trinidad confesses to the pastor that he has ruined people's lives but feels that some of them deserved it. The tragedy inherent in the scene lies not only in Trinidad's lack of remorse for his actions, but that it takes place completely without Horacia's presence and knowledge. She gains nothing from it. Trinidad, in his nature, is diametrically opposed to her, where even his confessions are half-hearted and brief with no commitment to anything he is saying. Contrastingly, Horacia's immediate reaction to help Hollanda after she collapses under the streetlight and then continuing to maintain a caring relationship is one that speaks to her nature. She takes Hollanda in and commits to a friendship. She clothes and feeds Petra. She helps Hunchback sell his balot and gives him money. These acts are a congenital reaction which contradict her desire to kill Trinidad. Horacia never finds closure the way Aksionov does in Tolstoy's tale, but for Diaz that was never important. Instead, we see a person who, despite all she had to bear, and given every reason to surrender, still found a way to be kind, because that was the purpose which called out loudest to her. When Hollanda collapsed, instead of disappearing into the dark, Horacia came running into the light.