Imagine, if you will, being plucked from your familiar surroundings and dropped onto a strange land, left to fend for yourself, unsure where to find any security or comfort as seconds tick by towards more uncertainty. People surround you but you are more alone than you have ever been your entire life.
For thousands in pursuit of the Filipino dream, that’s their first day as domestic helpers in Hong Kong. Let’s talk about Sunday Beauty Queen.
The Metro Manila Film Festival’s first ever Documentary to enter into competition — and the first of its category to win the annual festival — opens to a bustling slice of the city life. As the camera slides across sidewalks and avenues it captures our view from below towering skyscrapers and aged shop buildings. We are small as ants, overwhelmed at the size and weight of everything.
Directed by Baby Ruth Villarama, the film promptly shoves the city into the background and focuses on a group of Filipina domestic workers on their day off. Sundays in Hong Kong are punctuated by a gaggle of Pinoys spread out in groups across the city streets, on overpasses and tunnels in micro-communities of friends and acquaintances. Anyone who has had no inkling of this will be pleasantly surprised at the sense of support and community. The scene quickly shifts into the day’s culminating event: a beauty pageant (with a cause). Proceeds benefit a halfway house for migrant workers and other related projects.
Here we meet the cast: Leo, a domestic helper of 20 years which serves as the pageant’s main organizer and point person. Rudelie, four years in Hong Kong and in-between employers. Mylyn, who serves an elderly film and TV producer. Hazel, who is unable to come home to her children because she has to house-sit and take care of her employer’s dog. And Cherrie, who cooks, cleans, and takes care of her employer’s young child for most of every day. Except Sunday. On Sunday, she is a queen.
Each person we follow, with the exception of Leo, shine as pageant contestants on this one day. The film captures perfectly the joy, silliness, and even unexpected tension (wait for the Q&A portion) that one would imagine occurring backstage at any beauty pageant. As crazy as it looks, Sunday is a time for these women to unwind and relax, have fun, and be with friends.
It doesn’t stay that way for long as the film inevitably follows the women back to their six-day work week. There is a juggling act between telling a story and slipping into the political baggage of migrant work that could have easily been this film. Villarama throws those balls in the air well, making the audience aware of the issues these women face without having to jackhammer it into our minds.
What the film does supremely is lay out the truth of the individual cast by looking at the worlds they each inhabit. In the process, we see the emotional pain, sacrifices, the hardships, and even the absurdity — tantamount to slavery — they have to endure just to reach their dreams. One woman stays in the kitchen, looking out the window at planes flying by and dreaming of when it would be her turn to travel. Another is made to stay in the kitchen during mealtime as she is forbidden at the family table. We see the consequence of breaking curfew, and as one woman puts it, the “drudgery” of doing the same thing over and over for days that have no end.
Curiously, Sunday Beauty Queen makes it a point to show all these women are college graduates. Maybe it’s to show there’s no real difference in what we’ve achieved, only the choices we make. For six days of labor anyone deserves a crown at the end. It’s especially true for these women whose struggles are just as valid as anyone else’s. As Leo tells them, they are not maids or helpers. They are managers. Managers of their employer’s households and lives. Therein lies the dignity.
(Screenshot from Sunday Beauty Queens (Pitch Trailer #1) – https://vimeo.com/130393444)