Beauty for ashes
At first the narrative seems disjointed. No central character holds it together, and no plot can be discerned in the grab bag of discrete stories assembled around a beauty contest for maids in Hong Kong who have found a way to entertain themselves on their day off.
But on second thought, “Sunday Beauty Queen,” adjudged best picture in the recent Metro Manila Film Festival, is very likely telling a bigger story of our people, though perhaps unwittingly. This documentary-cum-narrative art is like a quilt that stitches together stories showing a major pattern in our cultural behavior: the capacity for surges of joy even through degradation and desolation.
The stories of the “queens” represent a fair sampling of OFW hardships and their ways of coping, touchingly told and without rage or rancor. Mylyn wistfully looks out the window of the small kitchen and watches the planes flit by, wondering when she can fly home. Hazel cannot be at her son’s graduation because she has to house-sit and tend to her employer’s dog. She can only watch the ceremony on a smartphone and the sound is erratic. The girls’ day of fun and glory in Statue Square very quickly turns to anxiety that they would be late for curfew and get dismissed, as happened to one who was peremptorily fired and had to scrounge around for shelter in the middle of the night.
The stories are textured; there is light along with the shadows. Leo, organizer of the pageant and “daddy” to all, has become indispensable in his employer’s household. Cherrie Mae as yaya serves as surrogate mother to her ward, and in the end foregoes her dream of taking a better-paid job in Japan for the child’s sake. Employers’ accounts speak of a bond that transmutes the servant-master relationship into an almost familial tie, mitigating the sting of servitude. And there is the pageant itself—testimony to our people’s ability to break out of relentless adversity and drudgery and make space for hanging loose and generate mirthful communal relief.
This pattern is more forcefully depicted in “Die Beautiful,” which I find most moving in its grotesque defiance, not just of convention, but of death itself—that iron fate that reduces to nothing all our dreams of beauty and significance.
The story is strong and the characters are nuanced in their emotional coloring, except perhaps for the one-dimensional sternness of Patrick’s father, who turns him out of the house and into her new life as Tricia.
Through the episodic twists and turns of Tricia’s quest for a beauty title—her checkered career as a contestant in numerous beauty contests, or “beaucon” in her gayspeak—runs a thread of pain that has its locus in her very identity as a transgender woman.
She is gang-raped in her youth, suffers the awkward ambiguities of mothering a child, falls in love with a man who turns out to be one of her rapists, and in death becomes an object of a tug-of-war between a family that wants to bury him as a man and a gay community that wants to honor her wish to “die beautiful” by making her up into various Hollywood icons each day of the wake. Her best friend Barbs vows to make her the most beautiful of them all.
The whole project is hilariously absurd, but then the film would be unbearably sad if not for this ridiculous element. In film as in life, our outrageous flair for the comic in the face of the tragic makes us resilient.
Yet I could not help feeling that this is precisely what is wrong with us. We have learned to be happy even in our tears. We tend to “turn away leisurely from the disaster,” as the poet WH Auden puts it, musing on Brueghel’s painting of Icarus falling from the sky. “About suffering they were never wrong, the old Masters,” Auden says; how well they understood that it takes place “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…”
Similarly, even as drug users and pushers drop like flies around us, we troop to the movies and get entertained. Like the geeky boy in “Saving Sally” who tries to get a glimpse of his dream girl from afar through a makeshift telescope, we devise ways of opening a window into an imaginary world where we can laugh and play and find dignity in shreds of beauty.
As the novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky tells us, “it is possible for a man to live without bread; but he cannot live without beauty.”
Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay is a social anthropologist and president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture, and of Micah Global.
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