Movie Review – Tracey (CinemAsia 2019)

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EXPECTATIONS: Hopefully a film that is more progressive than it implies.

REVIEW: The cinematic representation of the LGBT community in Hong Kong cinema has been quite sparse. The most famous one would be Wong Kar-wai’s acclaimed romantic drama, Happy Together, but in the case of that film, it was aimed more towards festival audiences, since Wong utilizes an European filmmaking aesthetic as he usually does.

In the case of LGBT films catered for Hong Kong audiences, there have been some notable entries like Yon Fan’s Bishonen and Shu Kei’s A Queer Story, but for the most part, seeing any factor in the LGBT community in Hong Kong has been, for a lack of a better term, quite problematic. Whether it is about a film that uses the notion of being intersexual as a reason for murderous intent (see Carrie Ng’s and Shirley Yung’s Angel Whispers) or a story that hit news headlines worldwide involving cash exchange for marrying off their lesbian daughter to a man, it doesn’t look good at all.

Now, in the present political climate, we have the LGBT drama, Tracey, by Jun Li, who is making is feature-length directorial debut. With a plethora of riches in the ensemble cast, including Philip Keung who is finally making his lead acting debut, will Tracey take the right direction in taking the path that will bring some sort of progressiveness for the portrayal of LGBT in Hong Kong?

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Philip Keung stars as the modest Tung Tai-hung, a successful optometrist married to ultra-conservative Chinese opera singer Anne [pronounced Vonnie in the film] (Kara Hui) and father to well-adjusted children, the meek Brigitte (Jennifer Yu), herself being pregnant and married to a lawyer, and the self-entitled Vincent (Ng Siu-hin), on the verge of starting university in the U.K. Tai-hung sees his school chum Jun (Eric Kot) regularly for drinks, supports Anne at her performances and basically does any of his paternal duties like any supportive father should.

But his life starts to become problematic when he is interrupted by news of the death of a high-school friend, which serves as a reminder of his two darkest secrets: that he has always believed that he is a woman and that he was in love with one of his childhood friends, Ching. From there he meets Bond Tann (River Huang), Ching’s Singaporean husband and from thereon in, it kick-starts a spiral of memories, confrontations and reconciliations that Tai-hung is forced to deal with and that prompt him to action, including his chance encounter with an opera singer Brother Darling (Ben Yuen), who is also a transgender.

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Does Tracey (transliterated from Chui-see) live up to its expectations built up from the buzz it attained from FilmArt as well as its award-winning reputation? Thankfully, it does but like any message movie with the best of intentions, it hits a few problems. As for the positives, the acting from the cast are all above reproach; not a weak link in the bunch.

Philip Keung is fantastic as Tai-hung, as he manages to delve deep into his character without resorting to histrionics nor pantomime, by conveying a man who keeps his emotions inert but having the appearance of a person who is about to explode. Since his character is understated and emotionally brimming, Keung’s performance can feel a bit inferior since the supporting cast are so damn good.

Kara Hui is scarily brilliant as Anne, who is so blatantly discriminatory of race, sexuality and homosexuality that not only is she absolutely convinced that she is right, she doesn’t understand why people are offended at the things that she says. Hui manages to find the humanity of her character while never throttling back on the brutal honesty. There are many scenes where Hui confronts other characters in the film with her wilful ignorance, and they are portrayed so convincingly, they become quite cringing and realistic to the point of awkward hilarity.

Other supporting actors like River Huang (charismatic, sensitive and mournful), Ng Siu-hin (conveys youthful anger and self-righteousness convincingly, matching Hui’s performance), Jennifer Yu (unassuming and meek quite well, matching Keung’s performance) and Eric Kot (typically overacts, but to a human and relatable level) all hit their mark, with their variable amounts of screentime.

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But the biggest standout is Ben Yuen as Brother Darling. Having a diverse theatre background, Yuen has appeared in many supporting roles and bit-parts over the past twenty years, including the Overheard trilogy). In Tracey, Yuen finally has a role that showcases his talents and he nails it with remarkable ease and conviction, that his scenes are the most heartwarming and triumphant in the film.

The narrative (written by Shu Kei, Erica Li and Jun Li) is problematic due to the fact that while it gets many things so right (the portrayal of conflicts that befall the characters, the character arc of Tai-hung, the emotionally satisfying ending), it confusingly gets some of the simpler things wrong. For example, the film seems to confuse transvestism, transsexualism, cross-dressing and homosexuality at times, due to the lack of distinctions.

There are subplots involving the supporting characters like Vincent, Brigitte and even Bond Tann that become superfluous and even unfinished. The musical score by Yoshihide Otomo, which is heavily string-influenced, overdoes the emotional stakes in the film and some of director Li’s direction is quite flawed and makes some of the dramatic scenes quite confusing and even slightly offensive in their intent.

One example involves Tai-hung going to see Tann at the hotel where he is staying. It seems as if Tai-hung is dreaming of Tann grieving through some sort of interpretive dance; but it becomes obvious that Tann is having some sort of emotional fit, making the moment quite laughable. Another example is when (without spoilers) a gay man forces a transgender woman ‘out of the closet’ to her best friend without her consent, which not only seems highly unbelievable but also quite offensive. With all those flaws mentioned (including a thudding ‘joke’ about the #MeToo movement), it will irk audiences at some stage.

But bearing in mind that the film is for the Hong Kong audience, Tracey is successful as a drama mostly for the acting and the understated-than-expected storytelling. But as a message film, it is quite flawed yet it is a step in the right path for Hong Kong cinema. Recommended.

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Cast: Philip Keung, Kara Hui, River Huang, Eric Kot, Ng Siu-hin, Jennifer Yu, Ben Yuen
Director: Jun Li
Screenwriters: Shu Kei, Erica Li, Jun Li

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