The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela (Olaf de Fleur Johannesson, 2008)
In the latter part of Olaf de Fleur Johannesson's The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela, the titular ladyboy recounts the history of her name. In a distant kingdom, a princess named Raquela was banished by her jealous stepmother and was forced to live humbly as the daughter of poor farmers. Upon the discovery of her royal roots, she starts aspiring to recover the life that was stolen from her and does everything to fulfill her aspirations. Raquela Rios' life, as recreated by Johannesson's deliciously crafted quasi-documentary (or according to the director, visionmentary), seems to be akin to the Anastasia-like fairy tale she lovingly narrates, but in essence, defines the invisible yet unmistakable gap between fantasy and reality.
Raquela dreams of walking the streets of Paris, garbed in fabulous dresses, inviting the attention of everyone who chances upon her. Her life in Cebu City, however, is drastically different. Although she is gifted with a family that accepts her completely, she lives on the edge. Her nights consist of plying the alleys for paid quickies from horny cab drivers and other customers. She delights in her profession, preferring to service her clients unprotected, thinking that each man that fucks her makes her more of a woman. Her mornings and afternoons, if not spent inside an internet cafe chatting with men from around the world or in the airport waiting in vain for the arrival of the foreigners who promised to rescue her from her unexciting life in Cebu, are spent daydreaming with her friends.
Johannesson does not avoid stereotypes. In fact, he exploits these stereotypes to great effect. Much of the film's charm and humor comes from Raquela's innate amiability, a healthy mix of different personality elements, including her forced falsetto (although irritating at first, it certainly grows on you), impressive wit, and unabashed flamboyance. In addition to Raquela, Johannesson adds to the film a roster of characters that seem to sprout out of the cliche bin, including Michael (Stefan Schaefer), the internet pimp who subs as Raquela's imagined "knight in shining armor," giving her the opportunity to fly out of Cebu and fulfill her dreams. It certainly seems that Johannesson is really bent on making a transsexual fairy tale.
As the film progresses and Raquela finally escapes the Philippines and closer to the realization of her dreams, Johannesson's fairy tale takes a drastic turn. Raquela's fairy tale, from the rainbow-colored dreams of her expanded imagination, transforms into something else: drab, mundane, and ordinary. There's a quiet poignancy in the way Raquela revives her fantasy: the way she livens the fish factory in Iceland with her unabridged commentaries with her co-workers, the way she turns second-hand apparel bought in a Reykjavik flea market into fashionable items, the way she attempts to save the final remnants of her Parisian romantic getaway with Michael, who turns out to be an asshole, through the little gestures that are quickly forgotten by Michael's arrogance and egotism. In the end, Raquela returns to the Philippines, undoubtedly better from her experiences overseas, but still a dreamer, still the princess of her fairy tale who dreams of returning to her kingdom.
Raquela's story is a beautiful story, one that attempts to capture the realities of being a transsexual individual in a third world country without succumbing into the usual pitfalls of these kind of story. I am guessing that Johannesson's first world perspective is important here: he acknowledges without pitying (although the initial introduction where the film talks of ladyboys being lured into prostitution feels a bit preachy) and often scoffs at the antiquated concept of the first world being saviors of the third world. Filtering from the film the often requisite element of self-pity of third world cinema (while I hate the label, I have to acknowledge that such cinema exists where poverty and its harsh repercussions are the allure), The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela becomes a refreshing concoction: a film that delights and moves at the same time.