‘Ako pala’y isang hangal’—How John Lloyd Cruz’s ‘indefinite leave’ led to ‘emancipation’

The award-winning, but under-reported, controversial collaboration between the actor and director Lav Diaz

John Lloyd Cruz as farmer in a scene from History of Ha. Photo courtesy of Sine Olivia Pilipinas

Once upon a time in a not-so distant past, John Lloyd Cruz, touted as one of Philippine showbusiness’ more enduring leading men, woke up, and found out he was a “fool.”

“Hindi ko kailan man malilimutan ang unang eksenang ginawa namin ni Direk Lav. Nagising ako sa katotohanan. Ako pala’y isang hangal. (I can’t forget the first scene [in a film] that Direk Lav and I did. I woke up faced with the truth. That I am a fool),” Cruz told in an email interview not so long ago, his words almost poetic in the use of Filipino language.

“’Yung eksena na tinutukoy ko ay ‘yung nasa loob na kami ng gubat ni Simoun (Piolo Pascual) sa Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis. Sa alaala ko ay nawindang ako sa simula, naiwan sa mga tainga ko ang alingawngaw ng pagsigaw ng action at ako’y may ilang saglit din na napatulala (The scene I was referring to was the one where Simoun (Pascual) and I were in the woods, in the forest. If I remember it correctly, I was in a daze when we started shooting. Ringing in my ears was (director Diaz’s shouting) ‘action,’ and I was dumbfounded for a few seconds).”

 2016 was a pivotal year for Cruz. It was when he first acted in a Lav Diaz film, the eight-hour historical fiction, Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullabye to a Sorrowful Mystery).

The collaboration started as early as mid-2015.

Actor and assistant director Hazel Orencio of Sine Olivia Pilipinas told that they started filming Hele on June 19, 2015,  in Bulusan, Sorsogon, for 22 days, plus a few more days in Bagac, Bataan.

Like in almost all of his films done by an “indie filmmaker,” Diaz not only directs but also writes, edits, co-produces his works, rightfully earning the title “auteur.”

“Pero sa kalaunan ng shooting ay naging mapagpalaya naman ang karanasan, lalo na sa mga marami pang natuklasan sa sariling kaalaman patungkol sa kasaysayan at sa sining ng malayang paglikha ((But as the shooting progressed, I found the experience liberating, especially when I came to discover how little I knew about our history and the art of free expression, of having creative freedom in our work),” Cruz added.

All the hard work paid off.

We can say 2016 was a pivotal year for Cruz. It was when he first acted in a Lav Diaz film, Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis

In February 2016, Hele won the prestigious Silver Bear or the Alfred Bauer Prize in the 66th Berlin International Film Festival.

Distributed by the then very active Star Cinema, it was shown in commercial theaters for a week in March of the same year. Because of Cruz and Pascual, another big star in the cast, it was patronized by the masa, the audience that Diaz has been hoping to reach out to. Well, reportedly, at least some of them had the endurance to see it.

Even popular talk-show host Boy Abunda, who was then still with ABS-CBN, honestly encouraged his viewers to take the “eight-hour Hele challenge.”

The gradual changes in Cruz’s outlook in life, or how Diaz’s aesthetics influenced everybody’s boy next door, began to manifest in  interviews. Suddenly Popoy of the megahit romantic film—some say modern classic—One More Chance, whom fans loved to hear say, “She loved me at my worst. You had me at my best,” was now talking about “saving the Filipino soul.”

Described a historical fiction, Hele melds Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo with the murder of Andres Bonifacio in the hands of fellow Katipuneros, and the 30-day search for his remains by his widow, Gregoria “Oryang” De Jesus, played by Orencio.

In a recent interview in Switzerland while attending the 2023 Locarno International Film Festival, Diaz said Bonifacio is the first Filipino desaparecido, the first hero victim of extrajudicial killings in Philippine history.

If it were a play, at some point the narrative is almost Shakespearean, as Diaz introduced a Puck-like persona from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Diaz’s film, there are three Pucks. They are the tikbalang played by Angel Aquino, Bernardo Bernardo and Cherie Gil.

In Philippine folklore, the tikbalang is a mythical man-horse creature that lives in the forest and playfully confuses travelers, making them go around in circles.

In this “multiverse” of a story, Cruz plays Isagani, the peasant and poet from El Fili who helps the wounded Simoun escape the guardia civil.

Cruz was in attendance at the 2016 Berlinale awarding ceremony and he saw for the first time how Diaz was treated like a “rock star.” He witnessed Diaz receiving the prestigious Silver Bear trophy from Meryll Streep, chairman of the jury. Streep would later say in an interview, “This film. This guy. He changed the molecule (arrangement) in my brain.”

In the latter part of 2016, Diaz followed Hele up with the four-hour-long Ang Babaeng Humayo (The Woman Who Left), described as the comeback movie of actress-turned-corporate executive and TV drama host Charo Santos-Concio.

Charo Santos-Concio and John Lloyd act together again in ‘A Tale of Filipino Violence’. Photo from Sine Olivia Pilipinas

Despite being one of the top decision makers in the ABS-CBN Network, which we all know has major film producing companies Star Cinema, Cinema One Originals, and Black Sheep Productions under its wing, Santos-Concio said back then that she hadn’t acted in a film in 17 years.  Only the Filipino auteur known for his epic works made her say “yes” to a comeback.

Charo Santos-Concio hadn’t acted in a film in 17 years.  Only the Filipino auteur known for his epic works made her say ‘yes’ to a comeback

Co-produced by Cinema One Originals and Diaz’s Sine Olivia Pilipinas, Ang Babaeing Humayo became another dream fulfilled. It was Diaz’s adaptation of a short story by Leo Tolstoy, God Sees The Truth But Waits, where a man is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.

In Diaz’s story, the protagonist is a woman who gets out of prison after 30 years, after it was found out she was innocent. She searches for her former lover who framed her, and contemplates exacting revenge.

Here, Cruz plays Hollanda, an epileptic transwoman who befriended Santos’s character named Horacia.

 September 10, Sunday, was the seventh anniversary of Ang Babaeing Humayo receiving the Golden Lion Award, the highest prize given in Venice International Film Festival.

One of Diaz’s regular actors, Joel Saracho, joked about how Diaz has been collecting animal trophies in Europe, he might as well start a zoo. In 2014, Diaz won the Golden Leopard prize for the four-hour-long anti-martial law movie, Mula Sa Kung Ano Ang Noon (From What Is Before), at the Locarno International Film Festival.

Locarno is considered one of the world’s most important festivals, sharing honor and prestige with those held in Cannes, Berlin, and Toronto.

“He got a leopard sa Locarno, ngayon may bear at lion naman, ano kaya susunod (what’s next?)” Saracho said in jest.

As of press time, Diaz has yet to win a trophy from Taipei’s Golden Horse Film Festival. He can’t join the Golden Rooster Awards from Mainland China because it’s limited to Chinese language films.

It may have been overlooked in Philippine media then, but Ang Babaeing Humayo beat 19 other films in competition, including La La Land by Damien Chazelle.

Emma Stone won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress, beating Santos-Concio, but Ang Babaeing Humayo brought home the Golden Lion trophy, the equivalent of the Best Picture award.

Besides having Hollywood stars Ryan Gosling and Stone, in 2016, La La Land may not have created much buzz among cineastes around the world until the musical film won major awards in the 2017 Oscars, including best director for Chazelle and best actress for Stone.

The 2016 headlines in Manila could have read: “Lav Diaz’s film beat Damien Chazelle’s La La Land in Venice.”

In Venice, Ang Babaeing Humayo beat 19 other films in competition, including La La Land by Damien Chazelle—which won major Oscar awards

Another competing film in Venice that year was Jackie, a story about the life of former first lady Jackie Kennedy (played by Nathalie Portman) after the JFK assassination.

Other acclaimed films in competition were Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, and Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time.

Cruz, Orencio, and Santos-Concio attended the awarding ceremony, and a teary-eyed Orencio remembered Cruz, who was also in tears, as Diaz went onstage to receive the Golden Lion trophy from Sam Mendes, the chairman of the jury, in the main competition.

It was also later shown in mainstream movie houses, with the help of Star Cinema.

It’s not the awards and accolades from cinephiles and critics abroad, the so-called “white man’s approval” to get noticed back in Manila, that matter. For Cruz, it’s the experience, the excitement of being a freshman-turning-sophomore in Lav Diaz’s School of Punk Rock Filmmaking.

“Pinakamasaya ako kapag nakikita ko si direk Lav na ginagawa ang ginagawa niya. Sa shooting man o sa red carpet ng Venice o Berlin. Mapagpakumbaba niyang winawagayway ang bandila natin, matalinghaga niyang minumulat ang mga mata ng mundo sa kwento, kultura, pasakit at tagumpay ng ating inang bayan. Kailangan natin ng marami pang katulad ni direk Lav (I am happiest when I see Direk Lav doing what he is doing. Whether he is shooting or on the red carpet in Venice or Berlin. He humbly waves our flag. Metaphorically, he opens the eyes of the world to the stories, culture, pain and success of our Mother Country. We need more of the likes of Direk Lav),” Cruz told

It was in 2017 that Cruz left showbusiness to focus on his personal life. Though not reported again in mainstream media, Cruz continued to make films with Diaz. The official announcement from Star Magic, the talent department under ABS-CBN being managed by Johnny Manahan then, was that Cruz took an “indefinite leave.”

The only update that fans received were the usual social media posts from strangers.

During his supposed long break, he did four more films with Diaz, shooting in the boondocks, the remote villages in Palawan, lakes near a volcano like in Taal, and so on.

One of those was Historya Ni Ha (The History of Ha), shot in a remote village in the northern tip of Palawan called Sipaldan. A quick Google search says it’s a barangay in the world-famous El Nido town. Based on Diaz’s description, it’s like time stood still in the village because the houses, the streets, even how some old people dressed were like in the 1950s.

Set in the late 1950s, Lav Diaz’s ‘History of Ha’ was shot in a remote village in Palawan called Sipaldan. John Lloyd Cruz in another offbeat role. Photo from Sine Olivia

Shot in 2019 but released only in 2021, Historya Ni Ha (The History of Ha) has Cruz playing Hernando Alamada, a puppeteer and former Hukbalahap rebel in the late 1950s.  He works on a cruise ship, entertaining passengers. After finishing his contract, Hernando decides to go home, hoping to marry his lady love, only to get frustrated with what he discovers.

John Lloyd Cruz plays puppeteer Hernando in ‘History of Ha,’ his third collaboration with Lav Diaz. Photo courtesy of Sine Olivia Pilipinas

This was also when the tragic death of President Ramon Magsaysay took place, in 1957.

It was in 2017 that Cruz left showbusiness to focus on his personal life. Though not reported again in mainstream media, Cruz continued to make films with Diaz

Diaz calls the film his tribute to Filipino vaudeville at a time when what was locally referred to as “bodabil” was a national pastime. “I think the era of bodabil is the golden age of Philippine entertainment,” he said once in an interview, citing the art form that produced Dolphy, Atang dela Rama, Katy dela Cruz, Tugo and Pogo, Eddie Garcia, Rogelio dela Rosa, Nestor de Villa and so on.

Bodabil started during the American Occupation in the 1920s, melding zarzuela, moro-moro, komedya, American song-and-dance, slapstick, and stand-up comedy.

Hernando makes a vow not to speak again, only letting his puppet named Ha do the “talking.” He decides to embark on a journey to a remote island, reportedly abundant with gold mines. Along the way, he meets a nun (Mae Paner), a commercial sex worker (Dolly de Leon), and a boy (Jonathan Francisco) who will influence his outlook in life.

With world-acclaimed actress Dolly de Leon (center in sleeveless top) and Mae Paner (nun), long-haired, bearded John Lloyd Cruz is almost unrecognizable in ‘Histroy of Ha.’

On the surface, it seemed like a simple journey of Hernando with three symbolic characters, but it was Diaz’s attempt to “expound on art and its power to transform.”

Through Ha’s monologues, the film posits the question: “Can poetry and theater truly act as antidotes to the cruelty of reality?”

As we all learned from history books, in 1957, the charismatic President Magsaysay, often referred to as the “Man of the Masses” because of his simple means, died in a plane crash. Described by Diaz as some kind of Filipino Christ, Magsaysay and his death launched a new era in Philippine history.

Diaz showed how the Filipino masses, having lost a leader whom they could identify with and believed could uplift them from poverty, are now looking for another savior—which becomes more tragic.

In Historya ni Ha, a villainous character makes a prediction, or rather, has a premonition: “Decades from now, we will have a leader from the North and another from the South. I am excited.”

History of Ha is considered Cruz’s third collaboration with Diaz.  It premiered in BFI London Film Festival on October 12, 2021. In an interview with foreign media, Diaz expounded on how good Cruz was playing the dual role of puppeteer and puppet.

We quote: “The art of ventriloquism is such a unique and specialized medium. The challenge was in how to make the acts believable—Hernando, the ventriloquist, and Ha, the ‘other’ persona. For great actors, that’s always the essential goal—to make the delineation believable, the illusion complete, and better still, transcendence is achieved. And, I believe, John fulfilled all of the above.”

History of Ha was followed by the now-legendary A Tale of Filipino Violence, described as Cruz’s comeback movie after his “indefinite leave” from show business. It became Cruz’s fifth collaboration with Diaz.

In 2019, ABS-CBN’s Black Sheep Productions, iWantTFC, and Cinema One co-produced with Diaz’s Sine Olivia Pilipinas the adaptation of Servando Magdamag, a 1970 Palanca-winning short story in Filipino by Ricky Lee that tackles agrarian unrest, feudalism, and the end of an authoritarian family.

Cruz plays the titular role, Servando “Magdamag” Monzon VI, heir to an hacendero clan whose lineage started during the Spanish times and continued up to the first few years of the Marcos Sr. presidency.

The now-legendary A Tale of Filipino Violence became Cruz’s fifth collaboration with Diaz—and its premiere has yet to happen

Lee’s short story ends before the declaration of Martial Law. He told he wrote it in 1969, while he was still a college student at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

When Diaz wrote the script, he expanded it to the Martial Law years, and the original title, Servando Magdamag, was changed to A Tale of Filipino Violence.

The deal with ABS-CBN was to stream it as an eight-part TV series for IwantTFC. Diaz’s only request was to have the seven-hour-long film version shown abroad, ahead of the cable television run.

On July 12, 2022, A Tale of Filipino Violence had a world premiere at Festival International du Cinéma Marseille in France. It had a Southeast Asian premiere on November 27, the same year, at the Oldham Theater as part of the Singapore International Film Festival.

For some strange reason, as of posting, the Philippine premiere of A Tale of Filipino Violence, both the TV series and film version in any movie theater, has yet to happen.

There was an attempt to show it as the opening film for the 2023 Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival last August, but it was reportedly turned down by the powers-that-be at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). The reason given to media was  its seven-hour length.

It was also reported in media, that the timing—the CCP executives were about to present its 2024 budget for approval in Congress— was not conducive to the screening of Lav Diaz’s work.

Meanwhile, Cruz and Diaz have moved on and started on their next collaborations. It’s a trilogy about a good cop named Lt. Hermes Papauran (Cruz), described as the Philippine’s finest police investigator.

“It’s like James Bond, you can watch any of the films without thinking which came first. There’s neither sequel nor prequel,” Diaz told

(More on When The Waves Are Gone and Essential Truths of the Lake, two installments in The Papauran Saga, in the next article.)

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