Sunday, December 16, 2018

Transgender drama Tracey is thought-provoking as well as trailblazing (film review)

The first of three posters I've seen for Tracey 

The second poster for the same film

The third poster I've seen for the film

Tracey (Hong Kong, 2018)
- Jun Li, director and co-scriptwriter (along with Shu Kei and Erica Li)
- Starring: Philip Keung, Kara Hui Ying Hung (aka Kara Wai), River Huang, Ben Yuen, Eric Kot, Ng Siu Hin, Jennifer Yu

In the same week that saw a news report about a Chinese homoerotic writer having been sentenced to 10 years in prison by a court over in Mainland China, Hong Kong saw its first mainstream movie with a transgender as its lead character being released in local cinemas.  The Sunday before, participants in Hong Kong's 2018 Pride Parade marched along a route that took them from Causeway Bay to Central and, early on, past a building containing a multiplex whose "Coming Soon" posters included one for Tracey which had its lead actor in clothing that clearly alluded to his character's transgender nature.

A popular as well as prolific character actor who was named Best Supporting Actor at this year's Hong Kong Film Awards for his sterling work in Shock Wave, Philip Keung's first ever starring role is one that called upon him to portray a character unlike any he has previously essayed, in more ways than one.  Best known for playing hot tempered men on both sides of the law, it can be quite disconcerting to see him as well-mannered optical shop owner Tung Tai Hung even before it's revealed that the married man and father of two prefers female attire to men's clothes and has long felt that he was female despite having a male body.

I've heard some people opine that Keung was miscast as Tai Hung.  My own feeling is that the choice of lead actor for Tracey helps make it all the more believable that, among other things, Tai Hung was able to convince much of the world, including his two adult children -- one about to enter university (played by Ng Siu Hin), the other married and with child (played by Jennifer Yu) -- and for so long that he was about as much of a regular a guy as one could imagine.  And even while his wife, Anne (Kara Hui Ying Hung), nursed certain suspicions about her spouse, she still was able to maintain the kind of public face and life that got people thinking she was lucky to be in the sort of marriage that she was, with a supportive husband who cared for her welfare and that of their children.

After Anne finds a receipt for women's underwear in one of Tai Hung's trouser pockets, he feels obliged to deny that he's got a mistress and, then, also that he's gay.  At the same time, he is open about not being a homophobe, unlike his conservative spouse -- whose socio-cultural prejudices can be upsetting to see not just because they're so open to view but also so reflective of many Hong Kongers of her generation and upbringing.  (Kudos to Kara Hui for playing such a hard-to-like character with so much sincerity that this (re)viewer ended up feeling upset for her as well as with her.)

If 27-year-old director (and co-scriptwriter) Jun Li had focused only on the Tung family, his first feature film offering could already have been a really thought-provoking drama; this not least since the characters involved -- including a cheating son-in-law -- and their relationships with one another was so ripe with dramatic content.  But, ambitiously, Tracey also features three other characters with tales to tell that could stand on their own but also did further the development of -- and even outright transform -- Tai Hung's persona.  

Of that trio, Bond (River Huang), the Singaporean man who had married a close childhood buddy of Tai Hung, could be said to be the most integral to Tracey since his arrival in Hong Kong serves as a catalyst for Tai Hung to re-consider how he was living his life.  It's too bad then that his actions often frustrated me almost as much as Anne's and their generally not having as negative an effect on others as I feared would be the case actually made many of those situations not ring true as much as I had hoped.

Although he's not given all that much screentime, Jun, the good-natured childhood buddy that the now 51-year-old Tai Hung had stayed friends with all these years, was a far more endearing character to my mind -- and I think that the actor who portrayed him, Eric Kot, had a lot to do with that being so.  Then there's Brother Darling, the Chinese opera-singing gentle soul so wonderfully essayed by Golden Horse Best Supporting Actor winner Ben Yuen.  His scenes with Tai Hung were so evocative that I can't help but think that the admittedly already pretty good Tracey would have been a better movie if there had been more of them.     

My rating for this film: 7.5           


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