By Emmie G. Velarde
AS AN OFW in Hong Kong in 1996, I kept homesickness at bay by heading to the Crown Colony’s (this was before the handover to China) first-ever Jollibee joint, in Central. I went most Sundays, with a singular craving for something that was not on the menu: the incessant chatter.
I didn’t even try to comprehend what I heard, an explosion of tongues at once familiar and strange. I was just happy to see women who looked like me. They were from my country and, though our paths might never cross anywhere in the Philippines and none of them spoke to me in that HK setting, I liked being there.
Sometimes I walked down nearby Chater Road for louder chatter and more color—manikyuran, kulutan, carinderia-style kainan (suman, palabok, dinuguan…)
The women looked almost carefree, and though I was sure I had a higher-paying job, I wondered why they seemed to have a better grip on the far-from-home syndrome. Or else, why was I deriving strength simply from watching them?
Comes a re-incarnated Metro Manila Film Festival and Babyruth Villarama’s “Sunday Beauty Queen,” about OFW domestics in post-handover HK and I get answers.
What I heard, witnessed and vicariously soaked in was the intoxication of freedom. Now, 20 years later, that spontaneous weekly tableau has evolved into purposeful gatherings that lead up to carefully planned periodic productions—beauty pageants! (Who would have thought?)
Once a week, yes; still with a bummer of a curfew hanging over the heads of enthusiastic participants and spectators both, yes. But these constraints, Villarama’s docu shows, only make the hours of momentary liberation more acutely vivid and urgent. And sweeter.
“Sunday Beauty Queen” is an unabashed tribute to the Filipina’s indomitable core which has crafted her smile, one that is like no other. I happen to still be informed of these women’s persistent woes through a lawyer-friend who is often sought out for help. But especially note the pageant sequences here: It takes more than a brief suspension of reality to summon that sparkle in their eyes; it takes grace and noble roots.
Because several stories unfold at the same time, SBQ has the luxury of both a happy ending and a poignant one. Never mind control over the storyline; I guess running into lucky breaks is a lot to be grateful for when making a documentary. I don’t like spoilers, so I’m not throwing in any. Suffice it to say that one of these involves the late Hong Kong filmmaker Jack Soo, who sings the praise of not just his Pinay help but of all domestics from her country. The whole world would be in trouble, he says, if they stopped working abroad.
SBQ is as engaging as it is easy on the eyes (and ears). Indeed, Pinoy indies have come a long way, technically. Best of all, it is obviously a labor of love, and the sentiment comes through loud and clear. And warmly. The thank-you for Villarama’s mother, who used to be a domestic worker, in the end credits is an unexpected heart tug and seals the deal for me: This is my favorite MMFF 2016 entry.