Revealing beauty to be more than just skin deep, Babyruth Villarama’s documentary “Sunday Beauty Queen” shows Filipino domestic helpers in Hong Kong finding fulfillment through beauty pageants. Tracking the lives of five women over an on-off period of four years, the film begins with a generalized overview about foreign workers’ unfair conditions, but finds its own groove at the climactic event, which transforms them in a glamorous new light. Hard-hitting exposé this isn’t, though the filmmaker’s solidarity with her subjects is obvious. The film is a welcome addition to the growing body of work on migrant labor with good prospects for documentary fest play.
Villarama’s last documentary, “Jazz in Love,” focused narrowly on the vagaries of a romance between a gay Filipino and his German fiancé. Here, she again strikes up a trusting rapport with her subjects, thus enabling her to catch them in their most expressive and unguarded moments. However, moving from a personal, intimate project to a much bigger social one, she doesn’t hit all the high spots. Coverage of the pageants, especially how they’re put together is disproportionately little, and one cannot gauge how they evolved as a subculture among the 190,000 Philippine female workers based in Hong Kong, or how they relate to the popularity of beauty contests back in the home country.
The film divides its time fairly equally among its five subjects, as Chuck Gutierrez’s subtle editing cuts back and forth between the subjects without actually interrupting the narration of each of their stories. The mover-and-shaker among them is Leo, a sassy lesbian who has been organizing beauty pageants in Hong Kong since 2008 to raise money to help Philippine foreign workers (or PFWs) in need. “I also did ‘Kabisig Chick-boy’ pageants,” she says with a twinkle in her eye, and one wishes those would be included in this film, too.
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Leo is described as one of the few lucky foreign domestic workers allowed to rent her own shared apartment instead of living at her employer’s home. Hong Kong employers’ disregard for their helpers’ private space becomes a major grievance with most of the interviewees. Leo recalls that at her first job, “My room was an extension of the kitchen.” One must bear in mind that Hong Kong residential homes are arguably the most expensive and cramped in the world — a point the filmmaker could have accentuated to explain why these arrangements came about.
Other issues of space clearly indicate that some employers don’t have the decency to include their helpers as members of the family: As one interviewee complains, her boss even forbids her to sit on the sofa. In the case of Cherry, an articulate hotel management major, she’s made to eat alone in the kitchen after serving the family dinner. Yet she spends more time taking care of her young charge Hayden than his parents ever do, and the boy’s obvious attachment to her is proof of her indispensable role.
Not all relations with employers are sour, and Villarama’s attempt to include them in the dialogue not only enables a more balanced view, but makes a stronger case for the PFWs’ value. With bottom-line pragmatism typical of Hongkongers, Leo’s boss analyzes what a good financial deal she gets: “A foreign helper’s basic monthly salary is about $555, as opposed to $10 per hour for a local.” But it’s also about companionship. Jack Soo, a entertainment industry mogul who’s immobile and lives alone despite having several daughters and grandchildren, can’t function without Mylyn. Mylyn’s strong bonds with Jack and the unexpected developments that result furnish the film with its most heart-tugging dramatic arc.
Although the pageant doesn’t even emerge until two-thirds into the film, it instantly lifts the mood, as the women reveal their glamorous side in vibrant regional costumes. Dexter de la Pena’s bright lensing captures their natural radiance, which even over-heavy makeup and bargain fabrics cannot mar. If audiences are surprised by how gorgeous the ladies suddenly look, it’s because the film shows them in a new light, as individuals, free and having fun for the first time.
It’s not without irony that the contest is sponsored by the Philippines Ministry of Tourism, considering that the country wants to welcome foreigners while its own citizens are leaving their homeland in droves. If Villarama has picked this one out of many other pageants to shoot, it’s a neat choice if only for the loaded Q&A sessions, in which an emcee dares to ask how the PFWs can rise above being labeled as sex workers.
Leo emphasizes the purpose of the pageants by introducing the shelter which benefits from donations of the proceeds, bolstering her critique of a Hong Kong labor law that grants only 14 days to fired overseas workers to find a new job, giving employers as well as brokers absolute power over them. Despite the litany of abuses that’s been aired so far, the project wraps on a heartwarming note as one sees each of the subjects make the best of their conditions, especially in the case of Cherry, whose kindness overrides personal ambitions.