This is a review of Baby Ruth Villarama’s Sunday Beauty Queen.
Baby Ruth Villarama’s Sunday Beauty Queen is a documentary film about a handful of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) in Hong Kong who join beauty pageants.
The documentary part made me a little hesitant to watch the film because in my mind, documentaries, if not done well, are ten minutes of material stretched into two hours of drivel. Based on experience, Filipino documentaries tend to sensationalize the issues, exaggerate the situation by zooming in on the downtrodden faces of the subjects and preach the biases of the documentary makers in poetic fashion by using profound Filipino words. Filipino documentaries usually aim to incense or depress the audience. However, the beauty pageant bit and the smiling beauty contestants in Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) montage encouraged me to push aside my trepidation and brave the seemingly endless queue for movie tickets in Gateway.
Villarama and her team proved me wrong as soon as the film started.
Sunday Beauty Queen focuses on the lives of domestic workers who are involved in beauty pageants, four of which are beauty contestants and one is a respected organizer. From Monday to Saturday, they work punishing hours, deal with homesickness, eat and sleep in cramped places, and try to make ends meet so they can buy items they can place inside a balikbayan box to be sent to their families back home. On Sunday, they forget their burden and rise up like phoenixes, reborn as gorgeous and graceful beauconeras.
With their gowns and high heels secured in oversized bags, they troop to the venue to practice dance routines and Filipino folk dances, break bread with fellow domestic helpers in a fiesta-like environment and laugh like they have no care in the world. The different OFW associations from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao make sure that their contestants receive their full support, from make-up to rowdy applause.
During the contest proper, the contestants sashay like swans in their Filipiniana, move like seasoned dancers in the talent portion and use every bit of neuron in the question and answer portion. Unlike Trisha Echevarria and company in Die Beautiful, the Sunday beauty queens do not have a cheat sheet of answers for frequently asked questions (FAQs). The Sunday beauty queens may not have the poise of those who have memorized the answers to the FAQs, but they have the sincerity that can only come from the heart and the courage to continue even if their tongues fail to transmit their message.
At the end of the night, winners and losers hurry to the subway and run in heels to make their curfew (one of them fails to do so and is immediately fired). As they travel farther from the venue, they reluctantly bid adieu to the fading memory of one day of happiness and welcome with displeasure the next six days of sordidness.
The ladies in Sunday Beauty Queen have worked in Hong Kong for multiple years. Most of them finished college in the Philippines, but they choose to work as domestic helpers because they earn three times as much cooking, cleaning the house and looking after strangers’ children than doing what is indicated on their diplomas.
Leo Selomenio, the organizer of the beauty pageants, is a college degree holder. She has her own flat in Hong Kong, which she uses as halfway house for those who lose their jobs and in the process of finding one (in fourteen days!). She seems to have it all, but she also started like the other domestic helpers. She relates that a typhoon signal 8 (!!!) blew the roof of her room away and drenched her and everything in it. Instead of making her sleep in the living room, her female boss asked her to move to the kitchen because Leo is prohibited from using the living room. Leo placed her mattress near the refrigerator but had to get up and sit in one corner every time a member of the family opened the ref to get something. She also had the misfortune of being fed with leftover food. Sadly, Leo’s experiences are not isolated. Filipino domestic helpers are treated worse than the owners’ pets. While the pets roll around in expensive beds, the help are forbidden sit on the sofa!
Like Leo, Sunday beauty queens Rudelyn Acosta, Cherrie Mae Bretana, Mylyn Jacobo, and Hazel Perdido, have their respective stories to tell. They left their loved ones in the Philippines because they cannot bear to be with them and see them “magdildil ng asin” (eat rice with salt and nothing else). They watch their children grow via smartphone and send their hope and love via balikbayan boxes filled to the brim. Mylyn, whose boss’s house is situated in a flight path, counts the planes she spots and wishes that one day she will be in one, on her way to the Philippines.
These unfortunate events are narrated without over dramatization and copious tears. Sunday Beauty Queen chooses not to dwell in the melancholy side of being an OFW (and the government’s inability to help them). The stories are related as part of the harsh realities but are not highlighted to appeal to the emotions of the audience. Simply presenting the facts without twisting them makes Sunday Beauty Queen standout in the uniformly depressing field of Filipino documentaries.
Sunday Beauty Queen is a poignant testament to the hardships that OFWs experience in strange places so they can put food on the table, yet Villarama succeeds in presenting the heartbreaking experiences of the Sunday beauty queens without embellishing the truths with histrionics. She let the participants tell their stories at their own pace and captured moments of sorrow and bliss without prejudice. She made an engaging story out of (what must be) very long interviews and encapsulate the essence of her subjects’ lives in 94 cannot-take-my-eyes-off-the-screen minutes.
Sunday Beauty Queen, like every Sunday in the life of an OFW, is a breath of fresh air in tackling a serious subject like Filipino diaspora. It is a reflection of reality, a positive reality that acknowledges that life is what we make it regardless of the obstacles we face. With the help of a powerful mindset and the Barbs, if we think that we are beauty queens, we become beauty queens, even for a fleeting moment.