Baby Ruth Villarama’s Sunday Beauty Queen is set in the urban landscape of Hong Kong, with its high-rise buildings, four-lane roads, and modern walkways. We witness Filipino domestic helpers gather on a Sunday—their usual day-off—for a beauty pageant they organized. With glittery make-up, expensive-looking costumes, and a noisy audience, they seem to be having the time of their lives. Until the pageant ended.
Candidates rush to leave. Cyril, the new titleholder, removes her make-up on her way home. Rudelie, another candidate, was terminated by her employer for getting home past curfew. The mood of the film shifts.
Sunday, for them, is a day when they can temporarily detach themselves from their haunting realities. These are the days when they just count airplanes, hoping they could be in one soon, flying back home to their families. Sundays become a time for temporary things—for the days they feel sad, homesick, and alone.
In one scene, Hazel Perdido, another domestic helper, watches her son’s graduation. The shot is simple but extremely intimate; the camera distancing itself from Hazel to show a full profile of a mother who is proud of her son. The camera lingers without dragging. It’s painful to see Hazel unable to afford to be with her family for special events. But it’s real, and for many others too.
The film is a poignant contemplation on the plights of these domestic helpers. It stays cohesive despite the varying microstories it presents. It is immersive, and its use of the documentary as a genre is intelligent. At its purest form, it manages to explore harsh realities, without disregarding the escapism of beauty pageants and gatherings as part of their reality. It lets us breathe; there is hope.
Realism is usually mistaken as simply depicting what the world looks like, and while realistic, Sunday Beauty Queen does more than that. It amplifies calls for the rights and protection of these workers abroad and exposes the faulty bureaucratic system that continues to ignore it. Ironically, local authorities label them heroes but are unwilling to heed their calls. The government remains detached from the reality that a lot of Filipinos abroad continue to experience injustice in their workplaces.
The film emphasized the educational backgrounds of the domestic helpers, and most of them finished college. The fact that they have to go abroad and be underemployed just to provide for their families is rooted in the government’s inability to provide ample and justified jobs for all Filipinos, and how our education system continues to create workers more marketable abroad and not locally. The documentary is able to present these hard-hitting truths without sacrificing the vulnerability of its subjects—it can be dramatic, but also agitating.
Sunday Beauty Queen ended with another pageant. But this time, you know these people; you know their stories. You know they still have to go home before their curfews, so they yell at the organizers when the event takes too long. You know that this is just an escape, that they go back to their employers after. A year passes and they’re still the same. The Philippine government is still the same. This is the part of the film that disturbs its audiences the most.
‘Sunday Beauty Queen’ is available on YouTube for free.