Review: Born Beautiful (2019)

As a sequel to Jun Robles Lana’s successful Die Beautiful (2016), Born Beautiful (2019) is an endearing  continuation to Lana’s film. Directed by one of the prequel’s producers, Perci Intalan, Born Beautiful follows the life of Barbs (Martin Del Rosario), best friend of the prequel’s protagonist, Trisha (Paolo Ballesteros) as she navigates a new reality without her best friend and undergoing several transformations as she attempts to find herself, whether as Bobby or as Barbs. 

For someone familiar with baklâ culture, I find it challenging now to discuss the phenomenon without the aid of my mother tongue. From a taxonomical perspective alone, it’s hard to explain. Considered a third gender, a baklâ was assigned biologically male at birth but has come to adopt feminine mannerisms and ways of dress. Some identify themselves as women, others do not and at the same time, some are only attracted to men while others don’t necessarily identify as homosexual. However, ask most and you’ll find that the word is generally synonymous with male homosexual which is an incomplete definition. For a culture that struggles to define itself to those outside of it, especially to those outside of the Philippines, a depiction that does it justice is essential. 

What Born Beautiful is able to do is provide a wonderfully nuanced insight in the culture and from an interior perspective where all its defining aspects are normalised, ranging from its own unique culture and approach to religion, family, sex, and relationships. In fact, throughout the film, heterosexuals are in the minority. From the use of their argot, Swardspeak, throughout the film to the familiar imagery and stereotypes (a baklâ running a funeral parlor is quite common apparently, says my mother), Intalan has provided a realistic, albeit somewhat occasionally rose-tinted, depiction of life as a baklâ. Even moments of discrimination are lightly glossed over, neglected, and rendered ineffective such as when pamphlets for a religious gay conversion camp are passed around at a Santacruzan (a religious-historical beauty pageant). Born Beautiful is not about a class of persons so often seen as marginalised in normal society, but in fact, about a class that is empowered and integrated. 

This equally reflects itself in Intalan’s direction. When Barbs finally begins to openly spend time with her new love interest, Michael Angelo, as the scenes come to mimic typical montages overlaid with a pop song as seen in Filipino romantic comedies. She watches him as he repairs his taxi, fools around with a wedding veil as they clear the contents of his car, shows up to his basketball games and appears as the “hot cheerleader” trope (with his fellow taxi drivers cheering behind him), and they toy with her cosmetics––it’s all very cute, quite frankly. But most of all, it’s not often one sees tropes such as these applied to a trans woman and a man’s relationship––and for the first time, I find myself smiling at the appearance of all the clichés of a romantic comedy. 

Similarly, this normalisation effect also reveals itself in Intalan’s treatment of the family unit and in relationships. At the Happy Endings Funeral Home, Barbs has Mama Flora, Kennie, and Princess––a one big, happy baklâ family. However, in looking to all of the heterosexual relationships in the film, one finds that they are all incomplete or born out of a compromise. For Michael Angelo, his wife appears to know that he has an attraction and has had relationships with baklâs yet they share a daughter and maintain a level of civility that even culminates in what felt like the world’s most awkward birthday party for their daughter with Barbs in attendance. There is a sense of loving acceptance there, a meeting at a halfway point that Michael Angelo himself eventually espouses when he accepts Barbs’ declaration that she can love more than on person and in fact, encourages others to do the same: “Love has no limits. The heart never becomes full. Love can never be contained. The more you give love, the more love you’ll have. You shouldn’t just love as deeply as you can, but as many as you can.” It’s a touching message and speaks volumes of what eventually takes place throughout the course of the film.

Del Rosario puts on a wonderful performance as both Barbs and Bobby. His oscillation between the identities of both characters is impressive, with Barbs’ larger than life, made for pageantry personality and Bobby’s subdued, gentle masculinity. The ability to do both with justice renders Barbs’ existential crisis to feel very honest and earnest. During her initial breakdown in the first half of the film, she’s had to do her walk as Reyna Elena at the Santacruzan on her own, she’s been abused by her first boyfriend, Gregory (also married), and her friend has just tragically died. “I’m so tired,” she cries, as she cuts off her hair, wailing. Despite her bratty, princess-like demeanour, we feel pity for her because it’s in that moment alone, there is a genuine rawness and desperation in the tears and in the symbolic act of cutting one’s hair. 

Without revealing too much, if there’s one aspect of the film and of Intalan’s direction that I find quite lacking, it’s during the abuse of power that takes place at the conversion group. If you’ve seen Die Beautiful, you’d find that it similarly mirrors what happened to Trisha in her youth. Though it serves as a moment of disillusion, I do take issue with how Barbs copes with it after it takes place. There is simply too little time too grieve, too little time to process the trauma, and in fact, it is presented as trauma, as she has a flashback in the second half of the film that gestures to its impact. In my mind, it would have been a crucial moment to show that sexual violence is not only a heterosexual phenomenon and when tied with the higher calling of institutional religion, it can further warp how victims see themselves, see their perpetrators, and how they come to cope with the trauma. 

Beyond that, I would also argue that the last 20 minutes of the film were unnecessary––the introduction of yet another plot twist was superfluous. The ensemble of characters that we had to start with were so multifaceted, complex, and vibrant. Had there been more time to delve into each of their stories further, Born Beautiful could have been a much more powerful film. For all its lightheartedness, I’m impressed at all the issues it’s managed to address but rather than being fully convinced of its effect, by it's end, it feels as though it’s tried to handle too much. 

An undeniably pretty film with a wonderful insight into baklâ culture and not to mention absolutely hilarious dialogue, Born Beautiful is a great watch at the face of it. But as a film that attempts to capture a snapshot of a life, it ultimately feels mildly underexposed.

Review by Melissa Noelle Esguerra

Born Beautiful just had a successful commercial run in the Philippines and we hope to see on our screens soon!

Melissa Noelle Esguerra is a multifaceted writer who likes to explore all things pertaining to art, film, culture, and literature. She obtained her BA (Hons) in English Language & Literature with a minor in Linguistics from New York University. After having spent the last four years in New York City, she now resides in Singapore. 

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