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Review: Sunday Beauty Queen -- Effective heart-tugger but misses the hard questions

03 April 2017

By William Elvin 

Babyruth Villarama’s “Sunday Beauty Queen” presents its viewers with a fail-proof, emotionally touching view of the Filipina domestic helper’s life here in Hong Kong. The documentary uses our community’s undying fascination with organized street beauty pageants as its narrative framing device to tell the stories of the individuals who choose to participate in the regularly-produced activity.

The film gives us an engaging and entertaining look at Mylyn, Hazel, Cherrie Ann in their daily routine as domestic helpers, going as far as peeking into the houses of their employers where we see them at work. We immediately notice that these women – at least from what the cameras have caught -- are among the luckier of OFWs in the region with appreciative and generous employers who support and encourage them in their off-duty hobby.

Less fortunate, at least in the early part of the film, is Rudelie. The cameras follow her from when she gets fired by her employer (due to missing her Sunday curfew after participating in a beauty pageant) to the all-too-familiar scene of having to exit to Macau only to avoid overstaying. Her story arc, however brief, turns out to be the most relevant, as it opens up conversations about unfair treatment towards domestic workers and their difficult working conditions. It is quite unfortunate, however, that the major issues presented in this arc are lumped into one segment, never to be talked about again, for the rest of the film.

At the center of them all is pageant organizer and community leader Leo Selomenio, to whom the film gives its most attention. The film portrays him as a hardworking domestic helper for 6 days a week, who also happens to be loved and appreciated by his employers. On Sundays, he does not choose to rest. He spends his whole day-off organizing events for the Filipino community, with a particular inclination to beauty pageants. Endearingly called “Daddy Leo” by his circle of friends, we hear engaging stories of his long-time journey as a domestic helper in Hong Kong and how he eventually got to produce beauty contests.

All of the film’s subjects deserve to be commended, as they have bravely bared themselves in front of a camera. It is never easy to be comfortable when being followed around by a film crew and one can only imagine the effort to stay as composed and dignified as possible in many vulnerable situations.
The documentary features powerful imagery, with the montage of a beauty contest’s evening coronation in front of an already empty Chater Road standing out. It also attempts at subtle commentary, particularly by including college courses the subjects completed or took in their introductory graphics, and then juxtaposing them with shots of their menial daily work as helpers.
The film’s message is clear: The domestic helpers toil away and break their backs from Monday through Saturday, so what’s the harm in letting them be beauty queens on Sundays? It is easy to understand and sympathize with the subjects using this logical and emotional frame. However, Villarama seems to have missed the hard questions that were themselves presented by the scenes she chose to include.

The beauty pageants, as they are presented in the movie, are organizational. They are not just festivities produced by individuals who want to have fun dressing themselves up in fancy gowns, crowns, and sashes, but are staged by groups who – for whatever purpose they may have – intend to make money. There are a number of scenes where it is heavily underlined that these events involve finances, but the filmmaker never asks questions about it or investigates it further.

The over-simplification may be dangerous. When the director chooses to present a situation where a domestic helper gets emotional due to not having enough money to send for her kid a day after the pageant, viewers may find it fair to ask if she has spent any amount to join the contest that could have been used for her child instead. By asking this important question, the movie’s viewers could have gained more meaningful and balanced insight into why the Filipinas choose to participate in these events.

As mentioned earlier, there are more scenes that lay foundations on pertinent discussions regarding practical issues domestic workers face everyday. Yet, Villarama seemingly chose not to delve deeper in many of them. In effect, the documentary feels trite and one-dimensional, with a lot of wasted opportunity to pursue intricate issues that could have shed more enlightenment on the OFW’s life in Hong Kong.

“Sunday Beauty Queen” is an enjoyable, entertaining, and effective heart-tugger that is best served with popcorn and pocket tissue for your tears. What it is not is a game-changing piece that favors progressive substance over superficiality.

Sunday Beauty Queen is produced by Tuko Film Productions. The version reviewed is from the movie’s special screening at the Rayson Huang Theatre, University of Hong Kong on March 26, 2017.

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