TRANScending: Film Review of "Die Beautiful"

TRANS ("beyond", "changing thoroughly"). But here in this country, it is a word so often associated with dishonesty, mistaken identity, and lots of stereotypes.

In the past 3 years, there were several developments in the LGBT community that raised the level of understanding about who transgender women really are beyond stigma and cliche's of being "bakla". We saw car enthusiast Angelina King reveal to her male-dominated followers her truth about being a transwoman with a non-traditional sexual orientation. We cheered for Geraldine Roman as the first transwoman in Congress, and Trixie Maristela and Kevin Balot as they won the crown  in the most prestigious trans beauty pageant in the world, Miss International Queen, where judging is based on criteria set specifically for transgender beauty queens, beyond comedy or impersonations. There's so much stories also about transgenders (men and women alike) and their lives, being featured in shows like Maalaala Mo Kaya, Pinoy Big Brother, etc.

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Identity & Beyond

But the LGBT community here is still far from full acceptance and tolerance with rights and all, despite these stories in media. Several trans hate crimes were reported in the past months, with the continuing issues of discrimination at work and other public spaces. Of course, we cannot forget Jennifer Laude, a transpinay, killed by an American marine officer due to a "mistaken identity".
The Metro Manila Film Festival 2016 features Die Beautiful, a film that's said to be inspired by the struggles of trans women in the Philippines. According to director Jun Robles Lana, the story is inspired by Laude at the beginning: "Remember the murder of Jennifer Laude? That’s how this project started. When Jennifer Laude was murdered, what was really shocking na aside from the fact up to now di pa talaga nakukuha yung hustisya na buo para sa kanya, ay yung reaction ng mga tao nung nangyari iyon. Parang they were saying she deserved to die, buti na lang na pinatay iyan kasi transgender, kasi monster, yung mga ganun eh. Shocking na bakit ganito? “Yes, I agree na marami ng pelikula sa atin na tungkol sa gay experience. Pero yung transgender, yung context life, struggles ng transgender [people], I don’t think ganun karami. And iyon yung particular topic subject matter na I wanted to explore.” (Source: Rappler)
[caption id="attachment_31130" align="alignnone" width="1587"] Trisha and Barbs supporting a guy in a  basketball game. Source: Regal Entertainment Inc, Youtube trailer.[/caption]
There are already lots of films, mostly comedy, that tackled gays and drag queens like Markova: The Comfort Gay, Ang Tatay Kong Nanay, etc. But did Die Beautiful really illustrate the life, identity and struggles of the Filipina transwoman today? Did it really transcend the stereotypes of a gender identity causing so much pain, inhumanity and even hate crimes in the trans community?

Transgender, Not Gay

Tricia Echevarria (Paolo Ballesteros), the protagonist, is clearly a transgender woman in the film. She is not "bakla" in a Pinoy sense despite all the cliche gay struggles the film illustrated while she was at her early age - cross-dressing and role-playing, wanting to be a beauty queen early on, being assaulted by a conservative father. While most of these are shared experiences in the LGBT community, the moment or jump towards Tricia's life as a mother in the beginning, wherein she told her best friend (Barbs) and daughter (Shirley Mae) that she wants to be a mother, and that she is a mother regardless of her assigned sex at birth, it was clear that she identifies herself as a woman, with her gender roles established, regardless of all the gay cliches that come with it. She was aware of that.
[caption id="attachment_31142" align="alignnone" width="1200"] Tricia explaining herself to her daughter. Source: Regal Entertainment Inc, Youtube trailer.[/caption]

Of Transitions & Transformations

The story-telling of Tricia's different aspects of life as a transgender women was organised in non-chronological way. The transitions were as swift as her makeup transformations in the funeral: starting as a cross-dressing boy then the film shows her as a mother. She comes out then she becomes a beauty queen.
Makeup obviously served as a tool for a pre-op transwoman's self-expression but it was more of a handy element in her career as an aspiring beauty queen. One can say that it's also as if the movie itself is in "drag" because beneath the show, glitters and thick makeup, lies the different struggles, sadness and frustrations of being a transwoman.
But did the film really show these beyond glitter and glamour?

Transgender or Drag Queen (Transvestite)?

In the movie, Tricia is played by Paolo Ballesteros, a famous online makeup sensation and celebrity impersonator/drag queen. Truly, there was so much honesty, sophistication and sincerity despite the hit jokes, on-point looks and punchlines when it comes to characterising Tricia as a transgender beauty queen. It was also his transformative makeup skills that gave so much marketing and cinematic appeal to the film, but one can't also deny the dangers that come in hand as Tricia in the film was not just imitating identities through makeup, she was trying to assert one.
While transgenders/transvestives fall under the same umbrella in Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE), which helps explain gender and where a person is in that spectrum , there was no direct mention of the word "transgender" in the movie or a clear dialogue about it.
Sa ating kasi pag bakla, bakla para isang umbrella. So hindi naintindihan yung concept na gender identity, yung sexual orientation. Of course hindi naman lecture yung buong pelikula para malaman yung gender identity, sexual orientation but we made sure na maayos na tinalakay namin yung pinagdadaanan nung character niya [Paolo] si Tricia para maintindihan namin siya.” - Jun Robles Lana, director (source: Rappler)
The film may have differentiated transgenders versus "bakla" (effeminate male homosexual) in some ways like the former entering the female bathroom and identifying as woman, it failed in differentiating transgenders versus drag queens. For example, for most transgenders, breast augmentation or even transplants (Sex Reassignment Surgery) are not beauty surgeries. They match what's inside a person's feeling, which Tricia also believed when she told Barbs that she wouldn't de-transition (remove her breasts and makeup) when she faces God if she dies because she believes she is a woman, but she also said something about it being a career upgrade in beauty pageants in the middle of the film.
[caption id="attachment_31127" align="alignnone" width="1300"]Processed with VSCO with c8 preset Trisha and Barbs off-stage, in the streets, dressed as women. Source: Regal Entertainment Inc, Youtube trailer.[/caption]  

The Beauty Queen / Beauconera

Even up to now, I still see some online reviews and Instagram posts referring to Tricia as gay. I think that the confusion also comes from the kind of transgender character that was presented in the film and the fact that culturally there is just one kind of beauty pageant here (notice how the name of the contests that Tricia participate in have the word "gay" in them even though sometimes she's competing in all trans pageant where impersonations and talent portions aren't already parts/segments - see the scene with Kevin Balot in the trailer). In the Philippines, majority of both transgender and drag queens rely on these (and some drag performances in bars) and the beauty / parlor industry in general, as main sources of income, because it is where creativity, fun, and "being yourself" are celebrated, valued, and not looked down upon. The only difference is that transgender women live their everyday lives as a woman and would want to die as one, and not just when the stage lights are on.  
But in the movie, the plot is driven by the Tricia's ultimate goal: winning a beauty pageant. She already knows who she is and how and when she will be ready to leave the house and pursue her transition and dreams. The film started with initially, cross-dressing as a little boy, and ending it by earning the title as who she really is - by slaying a common pageant Q&A "If you were given the chance to live again, what would it be?" based on her experiences and self-assertion as a transwoman even until death. She then blacks out and dies while being announced winner leading to her burial where she's transformed into 7 different female celebrity looks with the help of her friends, and sister, as she wished. 
Beneath these fleeting moments, stories of her personal struggles were introduced in the film such as asserting herself in the family even until death, being a mother to her daughter, fighting life as a rape victim, being a true sister, lover and friend. While these were not deeply developed in the film and that more focus was given to Tricia being a contesera, we can see how the film beautifully illustrated some of these seemingly familiar gay cliche's into unique humane trans ones - asserting true love, being honest and sincere about life, fighting for identity even until the end (though I would still prefer to see Tricia as Tricia even on her death bed)
[caption id="attachment_31128" align="alignnone" width="1300"]Processed with VSCO with c8 preset Trisha as Beyonce at the last day of burial. Source: Regal Entertainment Inc, Youtube trailer.[/caption]

Transcending Beauty & Gender?

When it comes to studying and understanding LGBT identities, one is trained to look at the labels - to identify who's transgender, lesbian, gay, even up to being pansexual - but one is also encouraged to see beyond the LGBT (thus the Q+ sign after it). The film may have failed in defining who a transgender is and how she lives her life beyond the spectacle and makeup - which is crucial with today's representation of the trans woman hopefully leading to non-violence, and respect even on one's death bed.
But it was very close in a way that it beautifully challenged and changed some of the typical gay cliche's about love, family, beauty pageants, and identity which leads to the understanding of trans as woman, a different type of woman, as a different kind of beauty, but just like everybody else: a human living life and all its difficulties.

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