Veteran character actor Philip Keung headlines newcomer Jun Li’s groundbreaking transgender drama, a first for mainstream cinema in Hong Kong.
Debuting feature director Jun Li’s Tracey is, if nothing else, well timed. An old-fashioned message movie with a current, and occasionally ironic, clarion call for Hong Kong to get its act together, the film is one of (if not the first) conventional mainstream drama to tackle the still awkward and often uninformed issue of transgender (and LGBTQ in general) rights and lives in the city. At a time when the highest-ranking politician won’t even acknowledge a winning — and lucrative, always a plus in Hong Kong — bid for the Gay Games in 2022, legally married women have to petition the highest court for a spousal visa and racism and homophobia are rife but seemingly unrecognized, Tracey is sure to generate a fair amount of curiosity in “Asia’s World City” simply for challenging its sometimes delusion self-image.
The combination of strong production standards and a zeitgeist that’s on the material’s side should lead to respectable returns at home and across the region where it will speak loudest and clearest. Overseas audiences may find the tone a touch preachy, though Tracey should nonetheless have a healthy life on the festival circuit for offering a peek behind the LGBTQ curtain in Asia.
Tracey is a difficult film to simply enjoy. It’s a necessary film, with frequent moments of genuinely moving or thought-provoking drama, but it is also too often weighed down by its own significance. Veteran writer Shu Kei, who broke ground in 1997 with the crushingly earnest A Queer Story, Erica Li (Sara, The Empty Hands) and director Li have more on their minds than just LGBTQ acceptance, and they load the film with a laundry list of hot button topics — poverty among senior citizens, anti-discrimination laws or the lack thereof, the lingering missionary mindset, rigid bureaucracy — and wind up with each being too diffuse to make a more powerful statement.
The always reliable Philip Keung (Trivisa, Chasing the Dragon) finally stars, here as unassuming Tung Tai-hung, a successful optometrist married to Chinese opera singer Anne (Golden Horse nominee Kara Wai) and father to well-adjusted children Brigitte (Jennifer Yu), herself married to a lawyer, and Vincent (Ng Siu-hin), on the verge of starting university in the UK. He sees his school chum Jun (Eric Kot) regularly for drinks, supports Anne at her performances and puts out fires at home like any good husband and father.
His well ordered and carefully modulated world comes crashing down on him when Ching, a friend from Tai-hung’s difficult youth, dies suddenly and his heretofore unknown, younger Singaporean husband Bond Tann (Taiwanese actor River Huang, The Tag-Along) calls with a request for help returning the man’s ashes to Hong Kong. Bond’s arrival is the catalyst that kick-starts a spiral of memories, confrontations and reconciliations that Tai-hung is forced to deal with and that prompt him to action. First comes a chance encounter with another opera singer, the now elderly Brother Darling (standout Ben Yuen, another Golden Horse nominee), Tai-hung worked with as a teen and the first transgender person he’d ever met. Later a hotel room almost-tryst with Bond reveals Tai-hung’s own life-long struggle with identity. A declaration, at 51, that Tai-hung is a woman comes after a tragic night on the town.
Tracey is unapologetic for being a message movie, and there is something refreshing about its honesty, which doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Even at two hours characters are underserved — Vincent and especially Brigitte vanish at one point, only to return as totally tolerant children — there are a few too many stylistic flourishes (freeze frames, slow-mo), the dialogue leans to on the nose and Otomo Yoshihide’s string-heavy score can make Tai-hung’s story feel more Lifetime melodrama than it should.
But there is still a lot to recommend Tracey as delicately subtle activist filmmaking. Shu, Li and Li are careful to avoid making it seem like Bond’s influence somehow “makes” Tai-hung a woman; it’s a hazardous narrative line to walk and they manage to pull it off. The emotional swirl surrounding Ching’s concealed sexuality and marriage, Bond’s generationally distinct comfort with his own identity and Anne’s casual intolerance (of race, sexuality, and homosexuality) create a critical mass that pushes Tai-hung toward her final destination. The film’s strongest through line is that Tai-hung’s circumstances have changed — Tai-hung has not.
Thankfully there is a welcome happy ending (mostly) for Tracey and Tracey that Li does a respectable job realizing, despite a few stagey moments early on. He brings a young, modern perspective on gender and sexuality to the film (as demonstrated in the closing love scene) and is just confrontational enough to get attention. He’s also blessed with a strong cast: there may not be a better choice than Wai to play the bigoted Anne; viewers will have a hard time listening to ignorance coming from the popular vet. The same can be said of Keung, who’s built a solid career as the best friend who dies, the cop who dies or the shady thug who dies (he’s Hong Kong’s Sean Bean). Given a chance to get out of his pigeonhole he acquits himself nicely, and is at his best when he’s at his most understated (listening to Bond grieve through a door, the moment he accepts his true self). And Yuen, as the elderly man who’s never had an opportunity to be who she is, steals every scene he’s in, both heartbreaking and triumphant.
Production company: One Cool Film Production
Cast: Philip Keung, Kara Wai, River Huang, Eric Kot, Ng Siu-hin, Jennifer Yu, Ben Yuen
Director: Jun Li
Screenwriter: Shu Kei, Erica Li, Jun Li
Producer: Shu Kei, Jacqueline Liu
Director of photography: Tam Wan-kai
Production designer: Irving Cheung
Costume designer: Irving Cheung
Music: Otomo Yoshihide
World sales:One Cool Film
In Cantonese and Mandarin
No rating, 119 minutes