The obsessive desire for youth and beauty among members of Manila’s transgender community is examined with documentary-like authenticity in the well-crafted drama “Quick Change.” Centered on a former entertainer earning a risky living as a “doctor” performing cosmetic procedures on her peers, the pic reps an impressive sophomore outing by Filipino helmer Eduardo Roy Jr. (2011’s “Baby Factory”). Though slightly less compelling when traditional thriller elements come to the fore, this admirably non-sensationalist slice of life on the margins packs a solid emotional punch when it counts. Strong fest prospects are indicated, and LGBT events should snap it up.

The opening sequences neatly establish a fascinating, highly self-contained world in which appearances are everything and having cosmetic surgery is as natural as breathing. Known by everyone in her poor neighbourhood as “Doc,” Dorina Pineda (Mimi Juareza) operates a booming business injecting collagen into whichever body parts her transgender clients wish to enhance. Almost without exception, the imperative for such treatment from Dorina and sidekick Lavinia (Natashia Yumi) is to gain a competitive edge at the next beauty pageant or talent show.

More striking than images of syringes penetrating cheeks, thighs and buttocks is the fact that Mimi is accompanied on her rounds by her nephew Hiro (Miggs Cuaderno), a bright elementary-school-age boy who lives with Dorina and her boyfriend, Uno (Jun-Jun Quintana), a gay dancer in Manila’s real-life Amazing Show tourist attraction. Some audiences might initially be shocked at the sight of such a young child being completely unfazed by the company his aunt keeps, and even happily carrying the tools of her trade in a specially designated school bag. But within this very detailed and precisely defined environment, where rules of the “real world” do not apply, Hiro somehow fits perfectly into the tapestry. It also helps that Dorina is shown as a loving and responsible guardian in every aspect of the boy’s home and school life.

Beautifully played by Juareza in a performance that won an acting prize at the 2013 Cinemalaya fest, Dorina is painfully aware of her fading youth, and of Uno’s roving eye, gazing in the direction of Hazel (Francine Garcia), a young and glamorous transgender dancer from the Amazing Show troupe. Scenes in which Uno rejects parts of Dorina that are still male, and Dorina passionately declares who she is and why she does not wish to undergo full gender reassignment, bring a powerful and pointed emotional dimension to the lives of characters for whom superficiality in conversation and relationships is otherwise the norm.

With its convincing depiction of a nontraditional community working so well, it’s something of a letdown when more conventional thriller ingredients enter the picture. Predictably, this involves several customers including Trixie (Sashi Giggle Esmerelda) dropping dead after receiving injections from Mamu (Felipe Ronnie Martinez), a grandmotherly beautician who also supplies what’s supposedly pure collagen to Dorina. The story lingers a little too long on Dorina’s search for answers before getting back on track with a highly satisfying denouement.

Performances are tops right down to small roles. The masterstroke is the casting of several high-profile transgender personalities with genuine acting skill; among those making fine contributions are local icon Shola Luna (Miss Gay Philippines 1982) as Dorina’s personal collagen “doctor,” and the aforementioned Garcia (Super Sireyna Queen of Queens 2013) as the object of Uno’s lustful eye. Elsewhere, Cuaderno is terrific as the plucky and amazingly well-adjusted Hiro, and Barbie Anderson leaves an indelible impression as Madame Lilia, a mature client so addicted to implants and the sensation of needles in her face that she tells Dorina and Lavinia, “I don’t care what you put in there anymore.”

Dan Villegas’ steady handheld camerawork captures all the razzle-dazzle of beauty pageants and the gritty reality of chintzy hotel rooms where excitable clients line up for Dorina’s services; lensing of flesh tones is exceptional. In synch with the central theme about the perceived importance of beauty and the risks associated with maintaining it by artificial means, most character faces are filmed in the most and least flattering of lights. All other technical aspects are fine.

Berlin Film Review: ‘Quick Change’

<p>Reviewed at Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival (New Breed), Aug. 1, 2013. (Also in Berlin Film Festival — Panorama.) Running time: <b>98 MIN</b>.</p>

  • Production: <p>(Philippines) A Cinemalaya Foundation presentation of a Found Films production. (International sales: Ignatius Films, Angeles City, Philippines.) Produced by Ferdinand Lapuz. Executive producer, Almond L. Derla.</p>
  • Crew: <p>Directed, written by Eduardo Roy Jr. Camera (color, HD), Dan Villegas; editor, Fiona Borres; music, Tersa Barrozo; production designer, Harley Alcasid; art director, Arnel Pedegarao; sound (stereo), Alex J. Tomboc; creative consultant, Armando “Bing” Lao; line producer, Sarah M. Pagcaliwagan; assistant directors, Anna Abalahin, Ruel Montanez.</p>
  • With: <p>Mimi Juareza, Miggs Cuaderno, Jun-Jun Quintana, Francine Garcia, Natashia Yumi, Felipe Ronnie Martinez, Jojo Saguin, Ronaldo Inocencio, Sashi Giggle Esmerelda, Maichel Fideles, Shola Luna, Bella Zabala, Katrina Manlangit, Barbie Anderson. (Tagalog, English dialogue)</p>