In one scene in Babyruth Villarama’s Sunday Beauty Queen, Hazel Perdido, a computer science graduate who’s been working in Hong Kong as a domestic helper for 8 years, views her daughter’s graduation from her smartphone.
In a bittersweet moment, she pleads with her daughter whom she left in the Philippines when she was just a year and a half old, telling her that the sacrifice of not seeing her mother on her special day is all for her comfort and future.
On its own, the scene is utterly heartbreaking. Villarama, however, ties the scene with a prior sequence of Cherrie Mae Bretana, who has been in Hong Kong for 4 years, playing surrogate mother to her employer’s son. She feeds him, clothes him, and lovingly accompanies him through the crowded metropolis’ streets and tunnels so that he can reach school safely.
Villarama, through the disparate experiences of two women, concocts a poignant narrative of mothers taking care of other people’s children just so they can support their own children so far away from them. ([READ] MMFF 2016: 5 things to know about ‘Sunday Beauty Queen’)
Abundance of humanity
It isn’t exactly a novel story to tell. In fact, the story has often been repeated in other films, filtered out of necessity by screenwriters, directors and actors who romanticize plights, dramatize conflicts, and sum up years’ worth of ache, sacrifice and dedication in a single quotable piece of dialogue.
Rory B. Quintos, in Anak (2000), dramatically detailed the suffering of mother who has also been working as a domestic helper in Hong Kong for years only to return to her children broken by her absence. Chito S. Roño, in Caregiver (2008), exposed the hardships of another mother who has to give up her career as a school teacher to work as a caregiver in London, all for her teenage son.
Sunday Beauty Queen offers a raw and more honest perspective, one that doesn’t rely on carefully crafted words and gut-wrenching performances to enunciate emotions. Villarama has little control over the lives of her subjects, yet the narratives she uncovers require little adornment to convey the most powerful feelings. It is almost impossible not to be moved by the abundance of humanity that her film showcases.
Yet it would be a grave mistake to treat Villarama’s documentary as one that is bereft of entertainment value, given that it eschews convenient and manufactured melodrama for real experiences.
Sunday Beauty Queen is a film that understands the value of escape.
In fact, it revolves around a metaphor of escape, of the mirthful Sunday beauty pageants that also provide the film its paced respite from its exhaustive portrayals of the self-sacrifices of Filipino domestic helpers.
Villarama sensitively blends camaraderie and loneliness, pageantry and despair, celebration and defeat. Her sequences depict her subjects donning elaborate gowns then eating their dinner alone in a cramped kitchen, enjoying the spotlight before rushing home to beat the curfew, and merrily chatting alongside friends only to spend the subway ride home already missing those precious few hours when they were allowed to be their happy selves.
Villarama is quite a gifted storyteller. Sunday Beauty Queen moves briskly, jumping from one subject to another with both ease and reason. It is also a beautiful film, with cinematographer Dexter dela Pena creating images that evoke both feelings of familiarity and foreignness of the subjects’ adopted home. Scorer Emerzon Texon’s gentle melodies accompany the images at the right moments, infusing the stories with added affection but never really overpowering them.
Sunday Beauty Queen is a wonderful piece of work.
In a period where reality is often mentioned alongside the words bleak and dreary, Sunday Beauty Queen offers something else, a piece of reality that is buoyant. It is celebratory of the simple pleasures that remind us that in a world of inequality, there will always be that one day of the week when ordinary people can be queens. – Rappler.com
Francis Joseph Cruz litigates for a living and writes about cinema for fun. The first Filipino movie he saw in the theaters was Carlo J. Caparas’ ‘Tirad Pass.’ Since then, he’s been on a mission to find better memories with Philippine cinema.