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‘Born Beautiful’ review: Humor is a weapon

Scrappy as it may seem, ‘Born Beautiful’ takes a subversive path to laughs and profundity, making it a light contrast to its predecessor ‘Die Beautiful.’

There’s a broad and raunchy type of humor in Born Beautiful that can be enjoyed on two levels. From a slapstick level, those coming in for an outrageous ‘laugh-out-loud’ time will likely be satisfied, provided they’re not easily offended by the unabashed (yet grounded) vulgarity that this film has. To a profound extent, the viewing experience can be even more rewarding once you realize that the film is way smarter than it seems. It deftly weaponizes humor to tackle a variety of socio-political issues, even touching on the most taboo ones.

Take this one scene for example. In the beginning of the film, Barbs (Martin del Rosario) and her friends rehearse for an upcoming Q&A competition. A character draws out a question and reads, “How many restrooms are there in the Philippines?” It’s a nonsensical question that nevertheless elicits a witty answer. But the recipient interprets it with a deeper meaning and responds with, “Three. One for men, one for women and one for persons with disability.” In that scene alone, the film casually brushes off the suggestion of having a separate CR for the ‘third sex’. It’s an early indication that this film will bear no usual themes of LGBTQ discrimination found in Die Beautiful. This sequel is way past that level now; Born Beautiful promises a brighter and more progressive take of the demographic that it represents.

Martin del Rosario as Barbs Cordero in ‘Born Beautiful.’

In fact, the film basks in the celebration of a transgender’s life: “dare to live, dare to love, dare to be you,” as its tagline says. There are few speed bumps along the way, and I mean speed bumps because the film meanders with a couple of sub-conflicts before it gets down to its prime predicament—an element purposely not shown in the trailer. For the first act, mortuary cosmetologist Barbs Cordero struggles with identity crisis in the wake of her two friends’ deaths. What follows is an eye-opening and brutal ‘gay conversion therapy’ arc that may trigger people with strong religious beliefs. Plotwise, the subplot feels inorganic as we’ve already seen in the first film how self-assured Barbs is with her sexuality. It’s easy to get past that hurdle if this first act is viewed more as a plot device.

By the second act, the issue of polyamorous relationship is brought into light. Barbs finds herself torn between two lovers, each having their own ‘guilty pleasure’ appeals: an abusive tricycle driver Greg (Kiko Matos) and a committed taxi driver Michael Angelo (Akihiro Blanco). The film carefully treads away from the PSA territory by offering no self-righteous solution to the issue at hand. It just shows how polyamorous relationships can work in the LGBTQ community.

Martin del Rosario (Barbs) and Kiko Matos (Greg) in ‘Born Beautiful.’

Originally commissioned as a twelve-episode cable TV series, this five-episode material truncated into a 90-minute full-length feature has its own share of flaws too. The screenplay plays out like a glorified sitcom burdened by pacing problems, occasional lame jokes and under-developed supporting characters. Perci Intalan and his writers steer the franchise to a more radical path, picking a blanket of issues along the way: racism, death penalty, unwanted pregnancy, the cost of beauty (that transcends up to death)—and even an impromptu sex education lesson (courtesy of Chai Fonacier’s delightful character) that otherwise gets heavily bleeped by MTRCB. By doing so, Born Beautiful tackles societal issues not as deeply as it can but rather as many as it can. It’s not the best approach that a film could have, but that should not discount the amount of nobility that this film has.

Martin del Rosario (Barbs) and Akihiro Blanco (Michael Angelo) in ‘Born Beautiful.’

Apart from the makeup transformations, the highlight of this film has to be the much-anticipated cameo appearances of Barbs’ deceased best friend, Trisha (Paolo Ballesteros). It’s a pivotal role to the story but it can be disadvantageous as Ballesteros’ presence reminds us of Die Beautiful’s emotional depth, partly achieved through his excellent lead performance. To put it in BeauCon terms, as the new queen, Del Rosario has big heels to fill. He does a fine job in doing so.

Now comparing Del Rosario’s performance to the acclaimed original portrayer, Christian Bables, the latter might have an edge when it comes to dramatic scenes but visually, Del Rosario makes a more charismatic lead. By the time the film gets to its raunchy intimate scenes, my doubts has been erased as the actor, along with his co-stars Matos and Blanco, shows unwavering commitment to their roles. The rest of the supporting cast are also commendable, with Lou Veloso’s godmother-ish role garnering the audience’s biggest laughs.

Gio Gahol, Martin Del Rosario, and VJ Mendoza in ‘Born Beautiful.’

Amid Born Beautiful’s scattered goals, they do converge towards a greater realization: the heart’s capacity for boundless love. One could have wished for a more affecting redemption upon its abrupt ending. The film closes on a totally different dynamic from where it started, ultimately making it feel like a pilot episode to a more promising aftermath. One can only hope that the full series will be released sooner than later this year.

3.5 out of 5 stars
Directed By Perci Intalan and written by Jun Robles Lana, Rody Vera, Elmer Gatchalian, Ivan Andrew Payawal and Fatrick Tabada, ‘Born Beautiful‘ stars Martin del Rosario, Lou Veloso, Chai Fonacier, Kiko Matos, Akihiro Blanco, Gio Gahol, VJ Mendoza, Jason Barcial, Milo Elmido Jr., Elora Españo, Joey Paras and Jojit Lorenzo. With a special participation of Paolo Ballesteros. Run time: 95 minutes.

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