Dec 28, 2016

[Movies] Die Beautiful (MMFF 2016)

I admit that I don't watch local movies very often since a lot of them seem rather cliche or yet another rehash of a regular story we've seen time and time again. And thus the decision to feature more independent films that try to tell original stories or at least somewhat more creative ones in this year's Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) got me rather excited.

I didn't know what to expect from Die Beautiful, to be honest. I watched primarily since one of the drag queens of O Bar sort of had cameo appearances in the movie and we wanted to show our support. I also figured it was the most blatantly LGBT story in the MMFF line-up this year.

I was worried that it would be something like the usual commercial comedies that we get, especially since it featured Paolo Ballesteros of noontime show fame. The only premise I had in mind was that he wanted a way to showcase his make-up transformation skills, which had already made the rounds on the internet, but thankfully the movie was a lot more than that.

Synopsis: Die Beautiful is a Filipino comedy drama movie directed by Jun Robles Lana. The screenplay for Lana's story was written by Rody Vera. The movie debuted at the 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival and won the Audience Award and Best Actor.

The movie begins with a funeral - that of transgender woman Trisha (Paolo Ballesteros). Her best friend Barbs (Christian Bables) has handled her make-up to make her look like Angelina Jolie as part of a promise that for the week of her wake she'd have a new make-up transformation look every day. As we progress through the seven days of her wake, we learn more about her life through a series of flashbacks.

The story is told in a non-linear manner and jumps back and forth across her life and the various events that defined it. We see her determination to become a beauty queen. We feel the pain of her estrangement from her father. We re-experience her many attempts at finding love. And all the while her corpse is made beautiful in different ways as the story unfolds.

What I Liked: The movie touches on a lot of key issues of LGBT life in the Philippines but manages to deliver this message in a somewhat lighter, more comedic way. Thus we see the challenges of family not accepting one's being transgender and we see how even kids can be harsh when someone is different. While some ideas are old to the point of being stereotypical, this does not make them any less relevant or significant in the context of local LGBT life. A lot of the same things keep happening here and they're unlikely to change anytime soon.

Paolo Ballesteros was surprisingly good as the lead here and I don't know of him being in movies before this. He helped make Trisha a strong, independent character - a survivor of a lot of bad stuff when you get down to it. I particularly liked the notion of Trisha becoming an adoptive mother to a young girl, thus making the audience try to appreciate ideas of LGBT parenting and how being a mother is more than being born biological female and such. There are a lot of good ideas in this movie.

What Could Have Been Better: That said, sometimes the movie falls into the trap of relying on so many stereotypical ideas, thus trapping its characters in old narratives. Trisha goes down the road of the LGBT person who tries to buy her way into love or something like that with some of her boyfriends merely relying on her for money and favors. Her main romantic arc later in the movie was problematic from the start since once again it dealt with a transgender woman going for a married man with rather weird reasons for the guy to fall in love with her.

And while not necessarily the fault of the people behind the movie, the way the movie is received by audiences can make one feel a little uncomfortable. The movie includes a rather sensitive and traumatic scene for Trisha and yet we had people in the audience laughing about it because of the dialog. The movie had its genuinely funny moments but there were still a lot of times that folks were laughing at parts that made me feel uncomfortable as a gay man and I suppose that just reflects where we are as a society.

TL;DR: Die Beautiful is more than just another comedy - it's a movie with a nuanced message about LGBT life and it tried to somewhat dress this message in comedy in a nicely subversive manner. Not all bits are great and the writing could have tried to better address such moments through dialog or scene direction, but at least we got an MMFF movie that made people watch a bunch of guys in drag for 2 hours. Thus the movie gets 4 different transformation looks out of a possible 5.

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