Death is often a great catalyst for self-reflection, at least for those who are left behind by the deceased. It is usually during the wake of the person who has passed that relatives, friends, and visitors are given a chance to wax nostalgia and remember how the individual resting in the coffin in front of them touched their lives. It’s all a bit cheesy, but anyone who has lost a loved one will tell you it’s true, and that’s why it often makes for compelling films. There’s just something about a life burning out that’s, well, pretty cathartic.
Die Beautiful, director Jun Robles Lana’s colorful tragicomedy entry to this year’s MMFF, is no different. It puts the life of a pre-op transgendered man in the spotlight, weaving a unique tapestry of heartache, trauma, and wistfulness into a narrative that’s just as depressing as it is fabulous.
The life in question is Trisha Echevarria (Paolo Ballesteros), born as Patrick to an ultra-strict father (Joel Torre, better than ever) and an absentee mother, with only his sister Beth (Gladys Reyes) acting as a prominent female figure in his life. The movie starts out with Trisha’s untimely death as she is crowned Bb. Gay Pilipinas—ironically, her ultimate dream. Her body is brought to Happy Endings Funeral Homes, which is owned by an old gay man named Flora (Lou Veloso—hilarious), where her gay best friend Barbs (Christian Bables) is tasked to fulfill Trisha’s dying wish—jazz-up her makeup to look like a different celebrity for each day of her wake. Together with her other gay friends and her adopted daughter Shirley Mae (Inah de Belen), Barbs meditates on the events that shaped her BFF’s life, all while making over her dead bestie into icons like Miley Cyrus, Beyonce, and Iza Calzado.
One of Die Beautiful’s strongest qualities is its near-perfect editing. Told through vignette flashbacks, the non-linear method in which the story unfolds takes the viewer on a terrific journey through Trisha’s highs and lows. There are often more lows then there are highs, one must note, but poverty and gender issues are dealt with in both a jovial and traumatic tone. The film treads that balance between comedy and tragedy so well that when the mood shifts from one to the other, it’s done fluently enough that it isn’t jarring. Whether revisiting Trisha’s tumultuous high school life, showcasing her mishaps as a beauty pageant hopeful, or elucidating on her hardships as a single parent, Lana’s direction is always sensitive. The melodrama never overspills into corniness. The painful experiences resonate. The milestones are always uplifting.
The acting is superb, Ballesteros and Bables are deserving of the awards they’ve received. But despite this being a commanding vehicle for Ballesteros, it is Bables’ scene-stealing turn as Barbs that easily stands out. The performance is so sophisticated for the mere fact that he breaks the mold of the archetypal gay best friend, which is often rendered as a laughable caricature in Philippine cinema. He adds layers to the already-complicated range of emotions the role demands. All at once, Barbs is grief-stricken, sassy, bitchy, supportive, and reliable—traits and flaws that can rush out from a real person during times of mourning. And because we are learning about Trisha mostly through Barbs, the character evolves from slapstick sidekick into veritable narrator even before the movie’s halfway point. And although this is a movie about Trisha, who remains somewhat of a mystery behind her thick lipstick, perfect brows, and smoky eyes, it is made clear through Barbs' words (and Ru Paul-worthy makeup skills) that even in death, life can still be celebrated.