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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Sunday, January 01, 2017

entry arrow10:00 PM | The Ladies of Kayod and Rampa

When Babyruth Villarama’s Sunday Beauty Queen (2016) [trailer here] was announced Best Picture of the lot of eight at the tail-end of the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival, I thought without hesitation: “Good for the MMFF. The film deserves the honor.”

There is something immensely satisfying in the acknowledgment of that accolade — like it was something long-time in coming — given how its inclusion in the 2016 slate created so much furor among industry people, most of whom found it being a documentary an irritating aberration that should have been grounds for exclusion.

It does mark a first in that regard: in the history of the festival, which was founded as the Metropolitan Film Festival in 1975, no documentary has ever been considered as a contender. That Sunday Beauty Queen won felt like history coming full circle all at once. That it also won considering that it was the one film in the whole festival that struggled the most in getting itself seen — only a few theaters outside of Manila dared screen it — felt like divine justice for those who had been championing it, who believed in its merits and the importance of its story.

For me, it felt like a decade-long corrective: its win comes exactly ten years after Enteng Kabisote 3: Okay Ka Fairy Ko ... The Legend Goes On and On and On was proclaimed Best Picture in 2006, the festival’s most embarrassing low point. Its win is a mark for great change still to come; it is also a clarion call for battles still to be waged ahead. (But of course. Bad taste does take time to overhaul, and it does have its own high priests. Consider, for example, the Manny Castañeda debacle.)

But here I speak too much of the film in the context of the MMFF’s long troubled history. Does it work as a film, and is it any good? It took me a long time to write this review. I saw the film four days ago, and I felt I had to allow it to settle in my head. Not that it was too complex to understand, or even too cerebral to feel: in these two considerations, Sunday Beauty Queen wins by being a film that is easily digestible and also easily felt. There are scenes aplenty in the film that provoke instant welling up of tears — the scene of someone talking about counting airplanes through the kitchen window, the telephone conversation about someone’s unexpected death, the scene at the halfway house.

And the structure of the story is easy enough to comprehend — Ms. Villarama’s camera simply follows several Filipina domestic helpers in Hong Kong as they struggle for six days of every week to manage the households of their “amos,” some under the scrutiny of cruel employers, and then on Sunday, on their day-off, they prepare to join an annual beauty pageant.

I think the film successfully sells itself as a very human story by allowing its cameras to linger and explore with so much intimacy the lives of the people whose stories we are following. After the film’s immediate opening at one edition of the annual beauty pageant — after the beautiful gowns have been paraded and after the crown and sash have been awarded — we are immediately plunged into the women’s every day reality. In the chaos of Hong Kong traffic, they transform to become the reverse of the Cinderella story: they trek back to the condominiums and apartment buildings of their employers, trying so hard to beat curfew, and in the next six days we see them toil with mop, broomstick, vacuum cleaner, and apron.

Often the film takes us deeper into the dirt-cleaning and babysitting by allowing its subjects to address us through talking head interviews, where they are allowed to explain, to reminisce, to ponder their place in the story of the country they have left behind. Why am I here and why am I not home? Why am I taking care of other people’s children while I have to make myself contented by watching my own child’s graduation through Skype? Why have I allowed myself this debasement by sleeping on the kitchen floor?

Their stories become a reflection of our nation’s frailties and broken promises. We know these stories exist; and yet to be confronted with stark images of these stories in the sweep of cinematic largeness is to feel cowed, and to feel crushed by our country’s seeming indifference. The film thrusts us into an identification with these people in a way we probably have never felt before, simply because cinema is powerful that way: thus their pain becomes our pain, their joys our joys.

And yet while the film does consider the darkness that often blots many domestic helpers’ lives in foreign places (getting abused by cruel employers, getting fired in the middle of the night, feeling the rush about having to get employment within 14 days at the risk of deportation, and so on and so forth), it also becomes a celebration of the hardy lives of these OFWs, and the film rightly marvels at their capacity to stage a “carnival” even in stark circumstances. That’s the Filipino spirit, I think, illustrated so well.

Ms. Villarama chooses to frame their stories in the simple framework of its witty tagline, “Kayod mula Lunes hanggang Sabado, at rampa ‘pag Linggo” (“Work hard from Monday to Saturday, do the catwalk on Sunday”) which I think is ingenious, considering the complexities of these real-life stories, a lot of which are left out in the name of narrative consistency.

Then again, one documentary is really not enough to contain everything, and so this is an editorial decision I can accept even if I feel it could have more in following, just enough, the hidden depths of the tangential issues it does present. For example, why is the Philippine Consulate generally unhelpful in addressing the plight of many domestic helpers in need of assistance? Why is the lesbian angle that is so tantalisingly proffered by the film not really explored? We are never given more than a promising mention of consular indifference, or a teasing shot of two women walking away.

One can explain these away by understanding that the filmmakers may not have wanted it to be too serious in weighing political and gender issues, which might distract from the simpler story of “struggle plus beauty pageants” — but I’m not so sure. One pointed way the film reminds us of a very political problem is by introducing its principals by full names, the number of years of their stay as DHs in Hong Kong, and the most damning of all, the college degrees they have earned back in the Philippines. It is saying our country has done great disservice to its people, reducing college degrees to nothing more than an aberration in a resume destined for servitude. This is never really explored as a problem, only limned at.

Some friends have also likened the film’s structure as being too much like a typical episode of Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho. “I’ve seen BBC documentaries that have tackled these issues better,” says one.

I don’t really agree with that — but I do think it could have borrowed a cue or two from Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, that great 1991 documentary about Harlem balls staged by gay black men in the very fringes of society’s margins. In that film, their “pageants,” their “voguing” competitions, their practice of “shading” are explained as expressions of a subcultural outrage, as aspirational efforts to counter the fact of their dreams being denied in the reality outside of these balls. Sunday Beauty Queen hints at that promise — it did ask the character of Daddy Leo why he organizes these pageants, and he merely replies with a playful, "Wala lang, feel ko lang" — but proceeds more or less to go the route of regular “poverty porn” storylines without the slums.

But I do think I am expecting a bit too much of Sunday Beauty Queen — and I think I am because the film is so very well-made it could have stood a bit more complexity. Nonetheless, I laughed, I cried, and in the end, I wanted to hug all domestic helpers from Hong Kong coming home for Christmas.

This is a great film every Filipino needs to see.

[The film is not being screened in Dumaguete]


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