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how ‘the woman who left’ reshapes movie revenge

If you look at it solely from the perspective of the mention of the ‘revenge thriller’ in its synopsis, you’d think that this four-hour long, black-and-white Filipino film had very little going for it. In reality, it’s a shining example of how the idea of retribution on screen flourishes in the hands of female protagonists.

For much of its mainstream existence, the revenge film has almost exclusively been made by and marketed towards men. The feverish, heart-pulsing genre has taken up a staple section of the hypermasculine dude’s DVD shelf, used as a surefire tactic to prove his bro-ish, indulgent status and undying (totally platonic, by the way) love for Vin Diesel. From old Clint Eastwood westerns to the likes of Law Abiding Citizen, the genre has undoubtedly been the breeding ground for male idols, leaving woman either unseen or painted as damsels in distress.

Even when women are involved, their overt strength seems to be substituted by ogling male film directors in favour of extreme sexualisation; rarely being seen as on-screen badasses without the compromise of being dressed in nothing but their underwear or a skintight catsuit. For so long, the genre has been used as a poor excuse to make men feel powerful and belittle a woman’s worth. The joke is on the former gender, though. After years of substandard, shitty blockbusters featuring AK-47’s and unjustifiably expensive explosions, a rise in arthouse revenge movies led by women have reshaped the genre.

Isabelle Huppert paved the way for the vengeful, ‘do-not-fuck-with-me’ female back at the Cannes Film Festival in Elle: her rape/revenge thriller made with Paul Verhoeven directing. Then, a few months later, the Filipino film director Lav Diaz, known best for his sprawling visions of his homeland, presented his latest addition to the genre: The Woman Who Left.

Clocking in at three hours and 46 minutes long (a fairly neat runtime for Diaz), The Woman Who Left has more than enough time to explore something deeper than its bare-bones synopsis may suggest. Beneath the stirring, black-and-white imagery of an innocent woman facing the world after 30 years behind bars is a story brimming with important, valued subtext that provides more than enough evidence in support of the gender in cinema debate.

The Woman Who Left manages to tackle so much more than its lacklustre predecessors. It’s a film that’s as much about the disparity between classes, the maltreatment of minorities and social justice as it is about a woman seeking revenge on the man who framed her for a crime she didn’t commit. It’s complex, beautifully crafted, and surprisingly tight considering its runtime.

Charo Santon-Concio is the definition of a female boss. Having taken a 17-year acting hiatus to focus on her role as the head of the Philippines’ biggest media conglomerate ABS-CBN, her comeback couldn’t have been more monumental than her role as this film’s protagonist. Here, she brings life to Diaz’s character, Horacia Somorostro: a sixty-something former teacher (and now, former convict), who balances her flawed, emotionally wrought character with moments of inspiring power and strength. In many ways, she’s the antithesis of her male predecessors, who are built on the idea of emasculating ‘inferior’ male figures and remaining stoic in the eyes of the public. In The Woman Who Left, we see Horacia help bring a brutally beaten gay man back to full health, AND crush a criminal’s face in to protect a helpless family. She, much like the film she leads through four hours of quiet emotional turmoil, is wise, rational and fascinatingly complex.

The Woman Who Left had its Scottish premiere at the 11th Glasgow Film Festival

 

Douglas Greenwood

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