Dorina (Mimi Juareza) is a retired entertainer who now plies the streets offering her cheap, quick cosmetic fixes to other transgendered men.
Lacking any medical experience, she is nonetheless "doc" to her grateful patients, whose faces are sculpted to look like the glittering faces of popular local celebrities. Her patients then don extravagant and colorful costumes, sashaying on makeshift stages, pretending to be beauty queens with their plastered smiles and generic retorts. At night, Dorina satisfies her boyfriend (Junjun Quintana), a performer in a pageant show that caters to foreign tourists. She then starts to satisfy herself discretely lest she incur the wrath of a boyfriend who prefers not to be reminded of her persisting masculinity.
Eduardo Roy, Jr.'s Quick Change is all about facades. It obsessively dissects the culture of transsexual women, their infatuation with youth and beauty. Seemingly aimless in its meanderings in between the redundant struggles of its fading protagonist, the film attempts to sensitively shed light on the ills of a specific repressed subculture, those that have been masked excessively with thick make-up and fake collagen.
Roy's challenge is obviously enormous. He has chosen to tackle subjects that have often been marginalized or exoticized. Roy attempts to dodge the traps, freeing himself from focusing on the usual themes of discrimination which gives him the opportunity to observe his subjects' conflicts in identity, how they struggle in between being male and female, being religious and morally compromised.
Although Roy would sometimes indulges in the humor that has been stereotyped as part and parcel of what makes transsexuals so irresistible to Philippine popular media, he would nevertheless depict them not as oppressed individuals, but as individuals who have found a certain niche that they have become comfortable to live in. Roy mostly succeeds in his endeavors, betrayed only by the need to frame his grand intentions within a narrative that only attempts a certain degree of subtlety to its obvious didactics.
Roy missteps when, midway, he shifts his focus from his transsexual muses to the actual crime of conducting clandestine cosmetic operations. Quick Change deflates into something quasi-noir, propelled mostly by Roy's compelling depictions of the horrors of makeshift cosmetic surgery than by its advocacy or its narrative force. Thankfully, the film is consistently visually fascinating, with Roy and cinematographer Dan Villegas creating morbid and ominous images out of the plain and banal.
Much of the film's perceptive style is reminiscent of Baby Factory (2011), Roy's impressive debut about several mothers overcoming the inhumanity of giving birth in a crowded government-run maternity hospital. As in Baby Factory, Roy, for the most part, fashions himself as a passive observer of Dorina, following her as she flies from one cheap hotel room to another to conduct her dubious cosmetic operations. He then exposes Dorina's cornered morality, constantly being splintered by both an economic necessity and her community's insistence on being defined in terms of outward appearances more than anything else.
Avoiding labeling Dorina in terms of good or bad, black or white, Roy conceives a society for Dorina where morality has been rendered obsolete by its impracticality. After all, in a world where consumerism is god and those who are incapable of paying make do with what they have, morality can never pay for food or more prominent cheekbones.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)
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