How Sunday Beauty Queen captures the spirit of MMFF2016
The eight movies of MMFF 2016 are a beautiful, motley lot—just like the audience that came to watch, shored up from the off-center demographics that many outside and inside the industry have predicted. As of this writing, the awards have been given out and the screenings continue, amid fears of attrition at the box office and the dreaded “pullout” of underperforming films from theaters, as well as a clamor for an extension of the Festival run.
Much has been said, and done, of course, about the Festival, the theaters, and its audience, not just recently, but throughout the MMFF’s long history. The latest change, instituted after a controversy last year, seems to be one of its most dramatic upheavals: the hold of theater owners, big studios, and the “audience decisions” that came with them in previous festivals has been relaxed, and the management committees drafted new sets of rules that have paved the way for what may be the most interesting set of Filipino films ever to have screened in a single instance nationwide.
What the change in the nature of the Festival has created is interestingness—a quality that eludes even the most well-made movies, and that many festival organizers have forgotten about. What this festival’s organizers seem to have realized is that this is a film festival after all—not a bazaar or a parade of stars, or a variety show on TV. The nature of film festivals, from Venice to Vladivostok (there really is one there), commonly relies on the uncommon spectacle of what filmmakers can really do at their bravest and boldest, outside the system and outside the market demands of regular programming time.
But this year, perhaps the largest share of bravado belongs to those who saw and understood—on both sides of the screen—that the MMFF was a festival unlike any other in the world, tied to tradition, moored to market forces, chained to the high Christmas season, and erected in an industry trying to find a balance between big networks and independent houses. We demanded a new kind of fairness that was rooted in quality, but also knew we still wanted a float parade; we wanted new narratives that went beyond the usual movie franchise, but we also hoped the usual audiences would line up on Christmas day.
By now the general public should already be aware of what to expect of each of the festival films. The news feeds and social media walls abound with raves and reviews. But it seems this time that the opinions are fresh and tinged with unnatural excitement, and many are determined to binge watch through the lineup. It is no large surprise considering the films range widely in nature, from the audaciously visualized to the self-serious, but carry almost none of the fan service of the previous years.
I look forward to completing all eight films, and my choice has largely been dictated by the screening times and the schedule of my life around them. Saving Sally made my heart swell over what love could do, considering it took more than ten years of commitment to create. Die Beautiful made me fall in love with the main characters—they should have a pre-Trisha’s-death spin-off sitcom fraught with Sophoclean irony and call it Live Beautiful.
But let this be the year Filipinos have finally come to recognize and embrace irony. The fact is, this has been one of the most-watched MMFFs of all time, no matter how many will have actually watched the films. And a watched industry is generally a good thing.
The oddest among those I’ve seen, and Best Picture winner, Sunday Beauty Queen, isn’t even a fictional feature. It’s a documentary—so far removed from the usual MMFF fare that a few people in the audience wondered exactly what it was.
SBQ follows the separate lives of Filipino women in Hong Kong who are obliquely connected by their participation in beauty pageants held on their days off, and for which they struggle to achieve polish, poise, and perfect grammar. “What is tourism?” the pageant host asks one of the hopefuls, and her answer—frantic, long-winded, fragmented, but entirely correct—would have been completely funny were it not completely real.
In between pageants, the stuff of real life happens: an absent mother strains to catch their children graduate through a bad connection on a mobile phone, a terminated domestic helper struggles to find a new job within a 14-day window, and a caregiver suddenly finds herself aimless when her employer dies. But on Sundays they are all beauty queens, and all-Filipino, practicing dance moves and putting up temporary food stalls in Hong Kong’s Central district. This is where their smiles shine and their worries are left behind, until their curfew swallows them up again into the long workweek ahead.
SBQ ends where it begins, with a day’s victory, a form of change in the life of the subjects, and a promise of continuity. But audiences who watch it—whether they are middle-class snobs who might never have wished to see an MMFF film or OFWs home for the holidays—will be changed, too.
Perhaps Sunday Beauty Queen captures what the Festival is about: a change of pace and dress at the end of a long period of unending work, a grounded sense of community, a contest that is really not about the competition. Let the crowd on the street wax and wane, wander and gather—let life happen outside and inside, let the beauty queens work their asses off the whole year round but gather on a day like Sunday. Whatever happens, in this Festival and the next, and the next, it’s a beautiful happening, and a beautiful life all put together.