OK, this early let's celebrate.
Yeah, right. The lines are not that creepily long, the movie houses are not exactly bursting with SRO Audiences and theater owners are quietly shaking their heads remembering last year's box office gross. But let us put all that aside. Not that the results of this year's Metro Manila Film Festival will not and could not affect next year's fiesta, but let us bask on this moment.
For two straight days and with four films, two of the entries so far are exceptional. The other two are good, definitely a head above all the rest you get to see every year --- but two are absorbing and would leave you walking out of the movie house talking about the film, asking questions and compelled to immediate post a Facebook shoutout to congratulate your friends who were responsible for putting these works together.
The joy of Die Beautiful is its humanity. How many times have we seen movies like these --- yet in those various cinematic excursions how many attempted to go beyond what is expected from stereotypes of screaming overdressed homosexuals making spectacles of themselves in every nook and cranny and at the slightest provocation? Let's get real here: Philippine movies have yet to treat the homosexual character with the dignity and respect that they deserve.
More often than not, the exceptionally restless and noisy bading has become the surrogate village idiot. He is the butt of jokes. He is the comic relief. He is the pathetic clown who will do anything but everything for a laugh. Hindi nga ba the other movie has its lead actress saying "Masaya kapag may bakla?"
However, Die Beautiful went far beyond that.predictable portrayal of the transgender whose mission in life is to wear outrageous outfits and instigate havoc in whatever/wherever/whenever.
This film had something much much more than what was expected or usually delivered. It is a compassionate and tender understanding of the gay treated with intelligence and heart in the same manner that Lino Brocka made us understand the pain of gay parenthood with Dolphy and Nino Muhlach in Ang Tatay Kong Nanay or all the other films (rare as they may come in these parts) that showed respect and treated the transgender with dignity.
So in order to avoid a tendency to ramble with a tsunami of descriptions and elaborations, let me simplify the discussion by citing seven very good reasons why no one should miss Die Beautiful in this year's Metro Manila Filmfest.
1. This is a movie with human beings and not caricatures.
Comedy has its own laboratory of instruments and the choice of one set of tools does not necessarily mean that it is superior to another that opts for other approaches.
However, with the case of Die Beautiful, the gender-bending lead characters go beyond what is familiar in our movie landscape where one of the biggest stars in the country is an androgynous performer.
The flash and dash of transgender performances are almost de rigeur in the same manner that the flamboyance of the artistes of Club Mwah or the mind blowing evening gowns and national costumes sported in high camp by transvestites in their beauty contests (aka beaucon) are all part and parcel of the novelty of that world.
But Die Beautiful went far much deeper by showing the entire mindset of men who want to be women and the societal consequences that are defined as discrimination or even downright hatred even from family. The journey of Patrick to Trisha Echevarria of the Bahamas painfully illustrates that beneath all the make-up and fancy national costumes and duct-taped bodies to accommodate their evening gowns and bathing suits lie the anguish for acceptance and even love.
2. This movie does not play for laughs: it is funny. Period.
No slapstick here. No Punch and Judy show. The movie makes you laugh because it is real. There is no set-up, nothing contrived. Even that scene that satirizes a famous confrontation sequence of Maricel Soriano and ZsaZsa Padilla was done so tongue-in-cheek for whatever commercial concession the movie had to play. Name-dropping (like the off-the-cuff mention of a famous name when Barbs announces that he wanted to lie in state wearing a barong-tagalog) is done with the sharpest of wit and social commentary. The shock-value lines end up funny because you know that people talk like that and not because the movie plays for the galleries.
When Die Beautiful decides to be funny, it is hilarious without going to familiar territory --- like what you see on TV sitcoms or comedy bars. It is even made funnier by the fact that you are laughing at real people in real situations.
It is only after all that laughter that you realize that there is so much pain inside the situation of people like Trisha or Barbs or that entire bevy of lost souls yearning for acceptance and to be loved.
3. This film is smart: Rody Vera's script is top-of-the-line.
Although others may be disturbed by the non-linear unfolding of events, Rody Vera's screenplay of Die Beautiful does not rely in more of the same-same. It shuns from being episodic where scenes of laughter are threaded together impersonating a plot. Rather it provides a concise balance between drama and comedy showing the ironic if not contrasting facets in the life of Trisha.
Even characters like Trisha's family --- embodied by his sister Beth and his dictatorial father --- are comprehensible in their weaknesses. There are no two-dimensional characters so that even the presentation of the exceedingly macho Migs ( played by Albie Casino ) was made so familiar as we know all these homophobe bullies who inflict traumas in the minds of young gays who are already marginalized by society or mocked by their peers.
4. The film deals with issues and not merely situations. More important, the issues are placed in a context that is so Filipino.
The friendship of Trisha and Barb, the subculture of the transgenders in our country, the contestitas who travel from one town to another joining beauty pageants with their outlandish costumes and rehearsed lines --- the laugh-a-minute self-introductions of the transgender beauty contestants --- and the even more surreal answers to that most dreaded Q&A: these are all too familiar to Filipinos who have watched beauty contests and have found entertainment in the wit as well as the dimwits who join these pageants.
Sunday Beauty Queen also explored the world of the beaucon but in the context of the surrogate community created by OFWs in Hong Kong.
Die Beautiful also delves into another subculture --- not in a foreign land --- but those alienated by society by the lifestyle they have chosen.
Sad to say, these beautiful she-males who go through hell and high water to transform their bodies to approximate those of women are never fully accepted. They are tolerated and viewed for entertainment value but never embraced as human beings who have real needs for connection and validation. They may be rejected by their own families, forming bonds among those of their kind only to discover that time is their greatest enemy .
5. There is this actor named Christian Bables.
The moment Barbs struts down the corridor dressed in his high school uniform with the young Trish, the audience gasps. "Who is he?" Better yet, we ask: "Where has he been hiding all these years?"
In a business where actors come and go, pre-fabricated/marketed/photoshopped --- talent has become a rare commodity. Gone are the days of the Judy Ann Santoses who literally start as child stars who evolve into competent artists and not merely picture-worthy celebrities. Nowadays, in the age of the millennials and centennials, everything is push-button accessible and disposable. You come across too many actors on your tv screen to ask that mind-boggling and never exhausted questionj: "Da who?"
And you ask this question only because of two reasons: you are in shock that there is such a preponderance of artistas and quite a few who can really show arte. Or your jaw drops because you come across a talent who is ripe for the picking and has been hiding under the bushel, overcrowded by too many generic performers.
Then there is Barbs portrayed by Christian Bables who many will consider as the hidden treasure discovered in this festival.
To go mano-a-mano with Paolo Ballesteros is no easy feat --- because as a performer Pochoy is death-defying. And to be able to hold his own and never cross the level of excess or venture into stereotype caricature, Christian Bables has just opened the doors for much greater possibilities.
This year we thought it was only JC Santos. We were wrong: there is also Christian Bables.
6. Ladies and gentlemen, presenting Paolo Ballesteros, the actor.
He may have wowed the internet with his make-up transformations morphing into everything from Michelle Obama to Beyonce, Kendall Jenner to Lady Gaga. But the role of Trisha Echeverria is the defining role for Paolo Ballesteros.
He has always kept his cool with the other Dabarkads as one of the lolas in the now concluded kalyeserye of Eat Bulaga. He may have made his name familiar with his years of exposure in the most popular noontime variety show that has spanned for decades. But nothing has prepared us for Paolo Ballesteros blooming into this wonderful actor who gives the portrait of a strong yet all too vulnerable portrait of a transgender seeking a definition for his life.
Amidst all the laughter in the film is a tragedy --- and Paolo knows this. As a rejected son --- or a damaged young man, raped and confused thereby further warping his perception of gender, he never strikes a wrong note. Together with Bables, Ballesteros gives a sensitive but more so intelligent performance that very well justifies that Best Actor trophy he brought home from the Tokyo Film Festival.
7. This is not a film about baklas dressed as women: it is a story of human beings seeking to fulfill dreams to give meanings to themselves.
Trisha is not about his costumes ... or his rehearsed lines in beauty pageants. It is not even about his transformations as he becomes so many faces but never finds himself until death.
Like Sunday Beauty Queen, this is about resilience and finding strength in one's self by joining forces with others who also seek the same.
Die Beautiful goes beyond gender bending. It is a comedy as well as a tragedy because that is what lives are all about. And Jun Robles Lana, Rody Vera and Paolo Ballesteros have given us one of the best evidence that --- well, yes --- Maraming Magandang Filipino Films.
Indeed, let this festival open doors to even greater possibilities. And the fulfillment of dreams.