Transgender visibility in Hong Kong hit the big screen last year in Tracey, the story of a middle aged husband and father (Philip Keung) who comes out as a trans woman, and the first major film of its kind in HK cinema. Contentious for its conflation of transvestism, homosexuality and trans identities, the film nonetheless represents an important milestone in a city where gender queerness is visible but not always accepted or understood. CINEMQ met director Jun Li at London's Chinese Visual Festival to discuss the film.
This is your feature film debut as director. What attracted you to the project?
A lot of things. I did gender studies as my masters degree. When you are presented a chance, you take it our you leave it. I decided to take it. I think Tracey is an important project, I think it has its significance in its time, and I hope that after this film there are more to come. I feel like this has opened a door to a lot of different films of this edge. They might not be LGBT necessarily, but with this kind of mission. So I think that it's important.
By 'mission', you mean films that have an eye on social change?
Social change and concerns for minorities. Different kinds of minorities.
You came on board as co-writer and director after Tracey had already been in development for some time. Do you think you would inevitably have made an LGBTQ film, even without this?
My short film that won the prize at Fresh Wave Film Festival [Liu Yang He 瀏陽河, 2017] also has a very strong gender theme. It is about a sex worker meeting a disabled client. So it is an intersection between gender, sexuality and disability. So I have always been a person who creates these kind of stories. I feel like what I wanted to do aligned with the mission of Tracey.
What changes did you bring to Erica Li and Shu Kei's script?
I really wanted to focus on the family. Tracey is a Chinese story, and we put our family first and foremost. This is a character with family ties, and these form the backbone of the story. I wanted to see how family values and personal values change between generations. Tracey has children, a wife. My relationship with my parents informed my writing. My mum is quite conservative, and Kara Hui's character is kind of modeled after my mum.
The film is peppered with a number of different social issues facing Hong Kong. Where you using more familiar issues, like rights for domestic workers, to help frame less familiar issues around gender and sexuality?
No, I don't think so. I think actually all these issues are questions of gender, really. What they're arguing about with their domestic worker is her sexuality [Kara Hui's character is unhappy that their helper has a boyfriend]. That reveals Vincent and his mother's different views on sexuality very early on, and how these views collide with each other.
What I really wanted to show is that, although we may have a liberal stance sometimes, when something happens very close to us, we have this hesitation and doubt. I wanted to explore that emotion, when we suddenly realise we aren't as liberal as we thought we were. Where are the limits of that?
How did you and actor Philip Keung create the character of Tracey, how did you inform yourselves about trans experience in Hong Kong?
We held a focus group during the pre-production period. Philip got to talk to several different trans individuals from different backgrounds. Their life stories were all different. We wanted to provide as much variety as possible for him. There is no one personal story that we tried to model the character after. It's a condensation of different life experiences.
What do you think about the question of casting cis-actors in trans roles?
I feel like there is a need for representation of different actors. What matters to me is that I cast an actor who makes a character believable. If it's about sexual orientation or gender, it's more internal. But casting an actor of a different ethnicity, it's an external attribute, and it changes the character. The actor's identity should not change the character as written. That's the baseline for me.
We have individuals who are seemingly very masculine, like Caitlyn Jenner, who have decided to surgically transition. She was always seen as a very masculine man. What the story of Caitlyn Jenner tells us is that the fluidity of gender is a lot more unimaginable than we thought it could be. So what if one day Philip Keung came out as transgender? Does that make him the perfect actor? The standard does not lie on that.
When you criticise an actor for playing a character that is not like them, you are speculating about their sexuality or gender. We don't do that because we don't 'out' someone, we don't put pressure on them. It's not the same as ethnicity, because we know that when we see a person. Gender and sexuality are different. I really respect the fight for occupational equality, that we have to face the truth that transgender individuals are denied work opportunities in almost all works of life. But at the same time, we have to appreciate the cis-actors who risk their careers to try to make a change too.
People like Joanne Leung, Siufung Law and Kaspar Wan have raised the profile of the trans community in different sections of Hong Kong society in recent years. How does Tracey fit into that context of trans visibility?
My film fits into a more basic discourse. Compared to Siufung, for example, their discourse is a lot more complex. But this film speaks to a lot more people who don't normally get interested in this kind of topic, who don't usually engage in this conversation. Of course, it is important that we have people who are very queer are at the forefront, to fight in very unconventional ways. But there are also people who want to make changes gradually. And that's what I'm doing with this film. I think having different voices and missions is important, as is having things targeted to the masses.
There are various resources for trans and non-binary folk in Hong Kong offering advice and support, including Transgender Resource Center https://tgr.org.hk
Interview originally conducted in English. Images are from the film.
Interviewer: Matthew Baren
Translation: Jack Yan
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