Sunday Beauty Queen (Philippines, 2016)

Sunday Beauty Queen features stories of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) in Hong Kong who gather on their weekly day-off, Sunday, and organize beauty contests as a fund-raising activity for an organization, the Bethune House, which supports the welfare of Filipino Migrant Workers. Captured with cinema verité technique, the lens of filmmaker Baby Ruth Villarama-Gutierrez takes an intimate look at the lives and activities of the women who participate in the these beauty contests, both the competing line-up and the organisers. This access allows Gutierrez to have her subjects tell stories of their lives in Hong Kong, but never to the point that her camera becomes too intrusive.

The interviews in Sunday Beauty Queen are, as much as possible, shot while the subjects are doing their daily tasks. Sit-down interviews are conducted but only at times on which the subjects’ (the OFWs) are allowed; the workers’ employers are also interviewed but probably on pre-scheduled time of their own convenience. One employer who is interviewed, film producer Jack Soo, explains Hong Kong nationals get to do the things they need to do thanks to the help of the migrant workers who take care of mundane daily chores on their behalf.

This kind of framing seems to reflect the film’s acceptance of the exploitative nature inherent in the relations between employers and migrant workers. The posture of objectivity never helps its audience sympathize with the migrant workers – it even justifies their circumstance as a necessity for the benefit of the employers. The documentary does not further interrogate this arrangement further and instead moves on with its survey of pageant preparation while occasionally highlighting “daily life”. In effect, it reduces its subjects’ real struggle as domestic workers exploited by transnational capitalism into mere melodrama.

Sunday Beauty Queen functions as double spectacle. Firstly, the documentary’s subject is a spectacle with the beauty pageant embodying the migrant workers’ struggle but packaging it in a way that is visually acceptable for comfortable viewing. The beauty pageant itself is not a denial of the migrant worker’s real state but it is their means of relieving themselves from daily struggles, an enjoyable activity to look forward after a week of hard work which also helps the community. Secondly, from the way the Gutierrez frames her subject, it is evident that she has tried to capture scenes as spontaneously as possible. What seems odd, however, is how particularly important scenes were shot as though planned in advance. The beauty pageant itself seems to provide spaces for the cameras to move and thereby provide (admittedly) great looking, flowing images instead of just snatching moments.

The documentary ends with notes of what has happened to its participants since the pageant. This epilogue, however, does not connect the importance of the pageant to what they are going through in daily life, as if the weekly meetings are a fiction separated from their struggles. It fails to acknowledge the effort the migrant workers put into organising the event: that the beauty pageant is a result of community organising, a concentrated effort to help one another deal with their individual struggles.

The format of Philippine representative Maxine Medina’s Q&A portion in the recently concluded Ms. Universe 2016 provides an interesting footnote for Sunday Beauty Queen: Medina stood on-stage with the event host, Steve Harvey, who was asking questions, and a designated translator. The translator did his job, Medina, answered the question with pauses. Like the translator, the documentary does its job well, but the act of mediation between the migrant workers and the audience only blurs its message. As with Medina’s responses to Harvey’s questions, what the audience for Sunday Beauty Queen receives are vague, generalized statements, which only cause further confusion.

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