Die Beautiful is a heartwarming film, wrapped in a light package containing heavy and emotional truths. What a rewarding watch.
Jun Lana’s Die Beautiful tells the story of Trisha Echeverria (Paolo Ballesteros), a transwoman who makes a living by joining beauty pageants. When she dies, her best friend Barbs (Christian Bables) arranges for her body to have different looks each day. The film then shuttles between the highs and lows of her young life, from holding makeshift pageants at home to losing her virginity, then her family, and finding true love.
The film is deceptively light. At first I thought the movie would simply focus on Ballesteros’s amazing makeup skills. While his transformations heavily feature in the film, it is a gateway to introduce audiences to a deeper story: the lives of transwomen in the Philippines.
Through short but meaningful vignettes, we are introduced to Echeverria’s life story, including her troubled relationship with her father (Joel Torre), who violently opposes her growing interest in changing sexes. Their exchange reflects that of every gay and trans boy in patriarchal Philippines, and Die Beautiful realistically dissects and examines this phenomenon. What I like about the film is that it treats the subject matter with dignity instead of using tired jokes.
Another sub-plot that I enjoyed is how it portrays Echeverria’s love life, which also brings to light how many relationships between transwomen and straight men work in the Philippines. Even if I repeatedly say not all gay relationships involve money, it still happens. Again, Die Beautiful treats this subject with respect and tenderness.
Even if the whole film is respectful towards the trans community, it’s not afraid to poke fun at it. Echeverria and Barbs trade off-color jokes and retorts that would make a conservative blush. The scenes in the different beauty pageants are some of the film’s best parts. Even if some of the jokes are old, they are delivered in such a way that it looks fresh and clever.
The light tone of Die Beautiful heavily relies on the cast’s acting. Ballesteros shines as Echeverria. There are actors that have such huge personalities that you can’t take them out of your head while watching them act, but Ballesteros disappears behind Echeverria’s layers of wigs and makeup. Even if he’s portraying Beyonce, Miley Cyrus, and Iza Calzado (in an incredibly entertaining scene) in his coffin, you will never see or imagine Ballesteros. You see and imagine Trisha.
Christian Bables as the best friend Barbs is also endearing. She’s been friends with Trisha since high school, and she has never left her best friend’s side even in the most tumultuous of times. Bables was so convincing that I was shocked to see him without makeup and a wig when he accepted his Best Supporting Actor Award at the Metro Manila Film Festival’s (MMFF) awards night. And oh, Ballesteros also deserved his Best Actor win.
No, you don’t need to be trans or gay to watch and appreciate this movie. It’s an honest look at how the trans community lives in the Philippines. More importantly, it’s a movie about love, friendship, acceptance, and family. And that’s what makes Die Beautiful bongga.
Die Beautiful is one of the eight entries of the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival. The other seven films are Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2, Kabisera, Oro, Saving Sally, Seklusyon, Sunday Beauty Queen, and Vince & Kath & James. All films are screened in all cinemas nationwide, and will be screened until January 7, 2017.