Review: ‘Sunday Beauty Queen’

Hot Docs 2017

2 mins read

Sunday Beauty Queen
(Hong Kong, Philippines, Japan. 95 minutes)
Dir: Baby Ruth Villarama
Programme: World Showcase (Canadian Premiere)


On Sundays in Hong Kong, many Filipino domestic workers enjoy preparing and staging beauty pageants. What initially seems like a quirky subculture turns out to be a more substantial subject in Sunday Beauty Queen, a big-hearted documentary from Filipino director Baby Ruth Villarama.

At the end of a first pageant we see onscreen, when the embroidered gown has been packed and the mauve lipstick wiped off, one of the contestants misses her Sunday night curfew. Promptly fired by her employer, she is given 14 days to find a new position or leave the country.

Villarama, whose mother was a domestic worker, has an obvious off-screen rapport with the five women she follows here (out of an estimated 190,000 Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong) as they talk openly about their struggles. Though several have post-secondary educations, their best opportunity to provide for their families, including their school-aged children, is to take overseas work as caregivers and cleaners. Though some have affectionate relationships with their employers, indignities are routine.

The pageants, which are supported by the Philippines tourist office in Hong Kong, are a glamorous distraction from drudgery and homesickness. They’re practical in other ways: the pageants allow them access to women, who can form a network, raise money for charity and possibly earn cash prizes.

The real star of Sunday Beauty Queen is not a pageant participant, but a woman called Leo, a feisty, good-humoured cross-dressing lesbian who lives in a shared apartment outside of her employer’s home. Leo has helped organise beauty pageants for years, using them to support a shelter for domestic workers. When people ask her what she does for a living, she describes herself as a “manager”, because, among the other tasks she juggles, “I manage my employer.”

Sunday Beauty Queen screens:
Sunday, April 30 at Isabel Bader Theatre at 10:30 a.m.
Sunday, May 7 at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2 at 1 p.m.


Liam Lacey is a freelance writer for and POV, Canada’s premiere magazine about documentaries and independent films.

Previously, he was a film critic for The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1995 to 2015. He has also contributed to such publications as Variety, Cinema Scope, Screen, and Entertainment Weekly, as well as broadcast outlets CBC and National Public Radio.

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