Baby Ruth Villarama’s Sunday Beauty Queen offers a poignant look into the lives of domestic helpers in Hong Kong, and it works as a documentary because it tells their story honestly and without frills.
The domestic helpers work six days a week, with Sundays as their day off. Instead of resting, they gather to join beauty pageants. Leo, the organizer, says they use it to raise funds to help their fellow domestic helpers who are in need, but a deeper (and more obvious) reason is that it promotes camaraderie and a sense of home for those living thousands of miles away from their families.
We’ve heard of the number of Filipinos working as helpers abroad. In Hong Kong alone, there are 190,000 documented ones. But for many of us, these are just statistics (though I could relate because my parents were often in Japan while I was growing up). Sunday Beauty Queen goes beyond the balikbayan boxes and straight to the jugular by showing the struggles they face.
Leo, who is also a helper, shares his earlier experience when he wasn’t even allowed to sit in his employer’s sofa. When his room was flooded, he was asked to sleep in the kitchen, where he had to stand up and move every time a family member had to get food or water. Fortunately for him, he is a “stay out” with his present employer, where he rents his own place and is able to live comfortably. In one scene, he and his live-in wife have at least four viands for dinner.
Others are not as fortunate. One helper was fired because she missed her curfew while participating in a pageant. She had to find another employer within 14 days or she would have to fly back home. In a halfway house visited by Leo, another helper was fired after a week because her employer’s child didn’t warm up to her.
Sunday Beauty Queen painfully portrays the domestic helper’s biggest challenge: being apart from one’s loved ones. One of the most poignant scenes is when a woman had to miss her son’s graduation in the Philippines. She tried to watch a live recording, but the connection was choppy. It’s moments like this that make it easy to exploit their stories or sensationalize it, but the documentary is lovingly and intimately told. During the credits, we learn that Villarama’s mother was a domestic helper.
All these stories are woven into the women preparing for the various beauty pageants they join. At a country where they are seen as second-class citizens, the pageants are an attempt to claim their individuality and have a family. It must hurt to take care of other people’s children and be unable to take care of their own. These women work tirelessly, but they do it with passion, pizzazz, and a whole lot of style.
Sunday Beauty Queen is one of the eight entries of the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival. The other seven films are Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2, Die Beautiful, Kabisera, Oro, Saving Sally, Seklusyon, and Vince & Kath & James. All films are screened in all cinemas nationwide, and will be screened until January 7, 2017.