That a documentary film, a full-length one at that, was included in the MMFF 2016 line-up signifies that the right people (or at least a handful maybe) are sitting there at the selection committee of this fest the past year. And good to know that they have enough sensibilities to consider all kinds of films as viable entries, even documentaries. Then it won Best Picture pa! Ayuz!
So let’s see what’s up with this beauty.
d. Baby Ruth Villarama
e. Chuck Gutierrez
Pitch: The film follows the lives of several domestic helpers in Hong Kong who are also beauty pageant contestants during their downtime.
Catch: The catch is that this should be shown more in many cinemas!!! Bakit na-pullout agad.
I think it was 2002 or maybe 2003-4 when I first encountered a queered version of domestic helpers’ lives in Hong Kong. I read an investigative report by IPS, that’s the Inter Press Service or like the Reuters of the NGO world as they say, and that report was in a book they mailed me during the early 2000s (met their head honcho in Bangkok who is Pinay pala, a panelist in Probe Media Foundation’s video docu workshop na napasali ako nung 2002 nga). I was amazed to learn how Filipino domestic helpers engage in same-sex female relationships to curb loneliness, even if some of these women didn’t identify as queer, lesbian or even bisexual, and some are even legally married to a man to boot. But they do it for several reasons: coping, companionship, to fight loneliness and, of course, battle homesickness. But once they come home or visit for a vacation back in the Philippines, it’s like their hetero lives resume without question, and of course without mention of their queer life back in HK. A very interesting and intriguing slice of Pinoy life as an OFW.
Now fast forward to 2016 and I see this reality onscreen, now, in this documentary film that won the MMFF Best Picture award. And the queer conversation is taken to a higher level already, almost a “non-issue” issue as the film portrays it, since one of the prime movers in the documentary is a queer (male-identified/identifying) woman. It’s very interesting to see how the queer character named Leo identifies herself as “lesbian” who is clearly within the more masculine spectrum, yet she is referred to as a “he” by his employers. (Or is it because a gendered pronoun is required to refer to him/her in English by her Chinese employers? I’m wondering if I will problematize this discourse the same way if they were merely referred to using non-gendered Filipino pronouns.) Although she is also referred to as male/masculine by her friends (their term of endearment for her is “Daddy”) and also her female partner, the more feminine or femme character (the one they call “Mommy”) who lives with Leo in her apartment. But regardless; I just find it very enlightening again, and now more so entertaining, since the queer identity is out in the open within this 2010s era of the Pinoy domestic workers’ lives in Hong Kong, and the queer identity of Leo is not an apologetic one (but she drops a disclaimer later, though — more on that below) nor is it a negative one as I’ve previously read in that early research. So yes, happy siya!
That the queer-identified person in the film stages a beauty pageant is also a happy fact. And it’s just so Pinoy queer culture at its finest reinvention, as the film helps in its intelligent yet heartwarming unfolding. Staging beauty pageants (and watching/following national/international ones diligently) has always been there in the culture, and it, of course, traditionally features heterosexual female contestants, with the queer people just fussing about at the background in some supporting role or another. Back home, we know how there’s a subculture that kinda flipped the coin on this one already: showing effeminate gay men naman — who are actually transgender women in nature, but this label still eludes the common mentality about queerness (maybe this also applies to Leo as a “he” or how she identifies as lesbian but her identity is clearly a transman) — actively participating in beauty pageants in smaller areas like in barangays and towns, usually done to liven up a town fiesta or event of sorts.
The barangay beauty pageant is a worthy event to stage lately, be it featuring hetero women or transwomen. And most of the time nga, we always see the person organizing the pageant (or funding it pala or something) as heterosexual. But here in this film, even if a queer person stages the Hong Kong beauty pageant composed of domestic workers, most of the contestants portrayed are heterosexual (save for one quick eavesdropped moment where we hear Leo and the other girls tease another girl as she leaves with her masculine-presenting female partner, or her “Prince Charming” as they joked). Thus, the queer Leo stages “traditional” beauty pageants with “traditional” hetero female contestants. Hmm okay, medyo queer na rin. Ish. Aliw pa rin, though.
SUNDAY BEAUTY QUEEN shows how this queered pageant offers the domestic helpers (or DH as they are termed) a chance to be beauty queens themselves, at least every Sunday, their designated time off from work. The film follows a handful of women who join these beauty pageants, to the extent of risking their jobs sometimes, as they might miss their strict curfew and get fired (one did). From Monday to Saturday, the film shows us how the life of a Filipina overseas worker in Hong Kong earn their keep. And on Sunday, the film shows us how they spend their time off from work: by hanging out with each other and preparing for their 15 minutes of pageant fame.
Features and stories about domestic helpers in the diaspora tend to highlight only the negative aspect of being abroad. For melodramatic flare, fictional films highlight the ills of having a mother leave abroad to seek greener pastures, leaving behind a family. The OFW DH momma role has already been played by many actresses, from Ate Vi to Pokwang. TV documentaries feature the hardships of their daily lives, sensationalizing their sacrifices. News items broadcast the abuse and the deaths of some of them. That’s why this film initially didn’t really stand a chance against prejudicial publicity due to the body of works that came before it (highlighting the “heaviness” of its supposed premise). One really had to go by word of mouth muna before seeing it. Clinching an award could also help its longevity. But of course, the premise has to deliver talaga. Kaya what one needed to do was just forget the news bit about it, the word of mouth, even the award, and let the film speak for itself by just giving it a chance and watching it. Simple lang.
From the get-go, its premise sounded like a jazzed-up pa-fun-effect version of a sob story waiting to explode at the background. But one will be astounded to realize that the jazzed-up fun that the beauty pageant journey entails already weaved in the supposedly sob stories of some of the featured women. And no, the “sob stories” weren’t manipulatively shown a la TV Patrol epic style. In fact, they become sob stories because you actually feel the women’s pain with them. And how is that achieved? Just by letting it unfold naturally.
There’s one good example there, of this woman who was being interviewed near a park area by the river or by a body of water, where she later walked the dog of her employer. She was trying to call her children back home and connect via video chat, but the connection was crappy (on the Philippine side, of course). One of the children was graduating, and I think they were trying to show her the graduation ceremonies as it’s happening, and she struggles to be with them “in spirit.” Prior to this, she was talking to them, and trying to explain to the audience as well, that she was apologizing for not being able to come home to attend the ceremony, since she needed to stay for her work, that she needed to work so she could afford to send the kids to school. The way she delivered this fact was just plain and simple, but she was a bit teary-eyed, trying to restrain her sadness. That “quiet” scene was indeed powerful enough to start you bawling; nakakaiyak siya nang hindi ka sadyang pinapaiyak, kasi nakakaiyak lang ‘yung sitwasyon, ‘yung dilemma, ‘yung reaksyon, at ‘yung found moment na ‘yun sa pelikula. You feel her pain, and it’s sadder that way, because she’s not putting an effort to make you sad; sad lang talaga ‘yung sitwasyon, period. Gets?
There are many other moments like these in the film, scenes that make you sad because the narratives of the women — including their daily struggles and moments of happiness with their chosen lives — touch your heart without that obligatory cinematic manipulation, that sadyang “kurot sa puso” device we “cleverly” write in within the scripts. In here, since it’s a documentary, it’s just…found. Like that scene of the girl who was a caretaker of this former film producer/executive who died while she was under his employ. And the producer’s daughter calling up the Pinay DH to tell her the bad news, and how she reacted and coped after, since she was obviously already endeared to the boss.
Many moments like these are shown that when the beauty pageant preparation scenes come up, it’s like a sigh of relief, an escape from the engulfing pathos of these Monday to Friday lives, a break from reality — their reality. Kung tayo ngang spectators ay naghahanap ng break from the sad reality, what more these women who live within such realities? And perhaps this is why the symbolism and importance — and relevance — of the seemingly “wala lang” event such as a beauty pageant would be deemed as important and regarded highly by these women: it’s a happy one-day-only respite from their daily grind. No, it’s not escapism; it’s coping. The beauty pageant gives them some distraction, sure, but it’s more than that: it gives them another sense of purpose, one that doesn’t kurot their puso so much to the point of bawling daily, one where they need to come out as happier naman for a change, to pose as confidently beautiful with a smile, to parade as a human being being valued in another way in this foreign land that only sees them in a (sometimes non-humane) myopic devalued viewpoint. In their small corner of the universe, they want to become magnanimous, even for just a few hours, perhaps a weekend or two, dolled up and forever captured in their selfies, the media coverage, and in their minds. No, they don’t do it for vanity’s sake; they need to have an alternative (and better) picture to frame their (often cruel) lives in the diaspora, and that damn picture better look good!
That the pageant organizer and the pageant participants themselves see the pageant staging as a chance of giving themselves a parallel purpose in their current lives is something worthwhile to realize, poignant to hear, and worthy of supporting and applauding. We all do what we could to survive, and we all do what we could to make surviving more bearable. This film shows us another form of resiliency of the Filipino spirit, and it shows us that we can have a damn good time being resilient, plus we could look good doing it to boot!
Walang itatapon sa pelikulang ito. Parang lahat ng included scenes ay poignant, kailangan, hindi sayang, hindi sitners lang ang peg (o ‘yung mga eksenang pang-fillers lang ng video habang naririnig mo ang narration ng audio). Kahit ‘yung eksena sa bahay ni Leo na nagluto sila ng hapunan, big deal ipakitang independent live-out helper siya kasi big deal pala sa HK ‘yun. Plus big deal for me din to have the queer couple portrayed like any other hetero couple out there: domestic, loving, and very real. No role-playing po in our universe; we just exist, and yes, this is how we love. Pero natawa naman ako ng bongz when Leo mentioned that she (sorry I refer to her as a she ha, kasi she said “lesbian” siya) didn’t start staging beauty pageants so that them lezzies could meet eligible women out there hahaha! Kaloka. Although that’s an interesting concern, and also to note, parang hindi organic kay Leo to use the term “lez” or “lesbian” when narrating her story. I feel it’s a suggestion picked up from the interview Q&A with the filmmaker behind the cam. This is my conclusion since she appears to be “old-school” in that manner, na “mars at pars” ang reference sa mga butch-femme, or to a certain extent they use the term “les” pero not the whole term. That was one moment when I felt the filmmaker’s hand on the material, handled rather heavily. But these touches are rare, few and far between, so they’re forgivable overall.
Kudos much to the people who worked on this. Congrats to my former student Chuck who edited it and also part of the producing team, as I read. I loved how they use the quiet visual language of the cinema to let the stories unfold before your eyes and ears, participatory enough so that you also have the time and leeway to let the messages sink in, to actually have time to listen to your own thoughts passing through your mind as you watch their stories unfold scene after scene and formulate opinions about what’s going on. You have this chance of hopping along for the ride, instead of being a mere spectator na sasabit ka lang sa outside rails ng tsubibo habang umaandar ito excitedly. Yes, no voice-over narration and no voice-of-God type of narrations work well for me for a documentary. It’s the cinematic kind, not the TV kind, kasi ang TV takot sa silence as I found out in that video docu workshop nga more than a decade ago. Talagang taong pelikula ako eh, hindi taong TV, kaya I value the pregnant pauses and the occasional silences that emanate from scenes and in between or within scenes. And I so love this film for having this approach, this treatment. Pang-best picture nga siya talaga, in form and content.
K end of review. I… thank yew!
[All photos swiped from the SBQ FB page. Pahiram ha. Salamuch!]