Newcomer Hong Kong director Jun Li decided to begin his career in feature movies with a “bang” and a big pink wig on the head of one of the most recognisable Hong Kong actors. What a way to start! Aided by seasoned scriptwriter Shu Kei and Herman Yau’s regular collaborator Erica Li, Jun Li has co-scripted and directed “Tracey”, where he frankly introduces a transgender character and follows her struggle on the path to happiness and self-discovery.
Tung Tai-hung (Philip Keung) is a quiet fifty-something man, a gentle but somehow distant middle-class husband and father of 2, and an earnest optometrist with his own shop. Fond of his sweet memories of adolescence and his school-time inseparable trio, Tung has always been a loyal friend to Jun (Eric Kot), a brash and jolly womaniser and Ching, talented and passionate war photographer, who has long lost contact with the rest of the gang, until one morning Tung receives a shocking and painful phone call from UK. Ching is dead. His school friend, his gentle companion of adolescence, the more self-confident and adventurous out of the trio and, most of all, his secret teenage crush, is gone forever.
Very soon, Tung and Jun’s disbelieve is shaken by the arrival of young Singaporean Bond (River Huang) who Ching’s had married while living in UK and who is now taking home his life-partner’s ashes. Neither Tung nor Jun knew of Bond’s existence and they are keen to share with him the mournful moment and help him with a red tape loophole that prevent the ashes to enter Hong Kong. While Tung delegates his lawyer son-in-law to take care of the matter, he finds himself captivated by Bond, on one hand because he sees in him Ching’s reflection and memories, and on the other because Bond seems to know a lot about Tung and his special bond with Ching and doesn’t refrain to tease him. Bond is in fact aware that Tung is hiding something and he will trigger in Tung a push to re-consider his life choices.
Exhorted by Bond and helped by a chance reunion with the transgender Chinese opera singer Brother Darling (Ben Yuen Fu-wah) that the pals knew in their youth, Tung reveals to his friend Jun that he always felt he was a woman and his aching desire to live in the open as a woman, but he doesn’t feel ready to confess to his family. It doesn’t help that his wife Anne (Kara Wai Ying-hung) is a conservative and strict woman, whose obsession with keeping up appearances is already damaging her pregnant and betrayed daughter Brigitte (Jennifer Yu) and is alienating her son Vincent (Ng Sin-hin)
“Tracey” is a very welcome addition to a family of films that in recent years have bravely tackled some of the hottest topics of Hong Kong society and in doing so have succeeded not only in exposing the truth but also in producing good movies (like “Mad World”, “Distinction“, “No. 1 Chung Ying Street”, “Still Human“). Transgender issues are rarely faced or seen in Hong Kong movies, sometimes through the amiable filter of Chinese Opera, but this film is loud and clear and resolutely delivers a message that is bound to resonate also with audiences in many other countries where LGBTQ issues are weighted down by a tradition, like in China, of strict and old-fashioned family values.
“Tracey” is not perfect but its honesty and freshness and the necessity of it, make it utterly and obligatorily forgivable. Some dubious mannerism in the editing, a score that could have been better and one or two incomplete narrative threads are maybe the major faux pas. Moreover sometimes, when many LGBTQ nuances pile up, it gets dangerously close to being perceived as didactic but there are some big pros to counterbalance the few cons.
The script charts an affirmative, albeit painful, journey of self-acceptance and liberation and propose a positive model and a “just” outcome and this injects the film with a strong dose of constructive optimism and keeps it away from self-pity.
Also, the cast is all excellent. It is so, so (yes, twice) good to see Philip Keung, at 51, breaking out of that supporting role purgatory where he was confined for a long time and take on a role that is nowhere near his past ones. He is subtle and controlled when portraying Tung in his everyday masquerade; details like his distant gaze and his moderate intervention in family disputes betray the pain and fatigue of a hopeless self-control and his desperation in begging Anne to set him free is honestly harrowing. He is great, and when he cries out that he’s always been a woman trapped in a man’s body you can almost hear: “I’m always been a leading actor trapped in a supporting actor’s body!!”
Kara Wai, as the extremely unlikable Anne, is excellent too in her blind desperation for “normality” and River Huang is well casted as Bond and gives him that air of slightly arrogant confidence of his age.
In fact, it is very interesting to see Tung, Bond and Brother Darling, (Ben Yuen won best supporting actor at the Golden Horse Awards for this role) as the three characters also represent and compare the way acceptance, tolerance, prejudice and awareness of one’s own desires and identity have changed (or haven’t) in three different generations. Not a great difference between the two oldest characters but Bond is the symbol of a necessary change, a strong gust of hope.
“Tracey” is a fresh, poignant movie, a modern take on the family melodrama genre with an ensemble of excellent performances and a progressive message of hope. More films like “Tracey”, please!