Tracey (Hong Kong, 2018)

Domestic drama comes equipped with an ardent serve of social commentary in Tracey, a new Hong Kong film from first-time feature director Jun Li. Clearly staged with the best of intentions, it stumbles badly due to a decidedly poor screenplay that robs much of the cast of good material with which to work, as well as an issues-based plot that effectively reduces it to the level of a televised ‘movie-of-the-week’.

The film focuses upon Tung Tai-hung (Philip Keung), a successful Hong Kong optometrist. Married to opera-loving Anne (Kara Wai), and father to two adult children, his life seems perfectly idyllic from the outside. The death of a former school friend, and the arrival in Hong Kong of that friend’s husband Tann (River Huang), sparks off an identity crisis in Tai-hung in which he is forced to confront his secret: he is a transgender woman.

In one sense, Tracey feels like an important film for Hong Kong, showcasing as it does the transgender experience – and the broader LGBTI+ community – in a city that does not entirely accept or understand the issues and challenges involved. Sadly the manner in which the film expresses and explores the topic at hand feels primitive and misguided. One wonders how much creative input director Jun – a gay man with a master degree in gender studies – was allowed to have on the film’s screenplay (credited to Jun, Shu Kei, and Erica Li). It does not seem as if it could have been much based on what is presented.

The film’s portrayal of the transgender experience feels muddled and confused, at times seeming to conflate transgenderism, transvestitism, and homosexuality. Furthermore, it suffers a tendency to have its queer characters engage in strangely uncharacteristic behaviour: in one key moment a gay man forces a trans woman ‘out of the closet’ to her best friend without her consent, which stands out as remarkably unlikely and offensive behaviour. Elsewhere the characterisation of the film’s LGBTI+ characters seems in turn stereotypical and awkward, and never feels comfortable in that territory. It is a deep shame, since it is valuable territory in which to develop a Hong Kong feature film.

Jun has an uneven style in places, where he seems to experiment with the storytelling in a manner that seems a little too exaggerated and silly. Some scenes misfire terribly: one moment sees Tai-hung going to see Tann at the hotel where he is saying. It seems as if Tai-hung is imagining Tann is grieving via interpretive dance; a few second later it becomes apparent that Tann is actually dancing in the middle of a sobbing fit – the abstract presentation of the scene is merely an oddly surreal affectation.

There are highlights nestled among the more problematic content, and it is well worth acknowledging these elements. A catastrophic confrontation between Tai-hung and Anne acts as a climax upon which the rest of Tai-hung’s story pivots. It overflows with highly charged emotion and feels deeply upsetting to watch. More importantly it rings with an authenticity that much of the remainder of the film lacks. A subsequent conversation between Anne and her son works to resolve the emotional wounds very well and manages to at least end the film on a stronger footing than it began.

The other great highlight is Ben Yuen’s sparkling performance as Brother Darling, an elderly opera singer with whom Tai-hung has shared a personal friendship since his teenage years. It is a performance rich with dignity and charm, and the perfect film showcase for an actor who most commonly works in Hong Kong theatre. It rightfully scored him the 2018 Golden Horse Award for Best Supporting Actor. He manages to negotiate a weak screenplay and transcend it, while his co-stars generally struggle with what they have been given.

Tracey is a good idea executed poorly. The subject matter and cast seem well-chosen and had plenty of potential. That potential is sadly not realised, leaving audiences in the theatre with something that is disappointing, over-long, rather boring, and occasionally mildly offensive.