“I just changed my gender, I didn’t commit a crime” the heroine of Kay Nguyễn’s Drama Queen (Sắc Đẹp Dối Trá) answers after being publicly outed during a beauty contest. Sometimes people need a push to finally achieve their dreams, though witnessing a murder and becoming the target of shady gangsters is certainly an extreme motivation. Starring transgender pop star Huong Giang, Nguyễn’s playful drama is a win for representation as its steely heroine finds the courage to claim her space while keeping one step ahead of the mob and one step closer to beauty queen stardom.
As the film opens, Duong (Huong Giang) is a lowly stuntman unexpectedly given the chance to shine when the lead actor goes AWOL. Unfortunately, Duong is a little too in love with the spotlight and can’t resist showing off his skills, effortlessly fighting off the ninjas who were supposed to despatch his character so he can finish his dance. In addition to irritating the crew, Duong’s improvements also result in the costume getting damaged, landing him a $500 bill he can in no way afford. The incident does at least introduce him to Hao, the actor who will be taking over. Unfortunately, however, the next time Duong encounters Hao he’s being stabbed in the street, later realising he’s been offed by Thien, the gangster who runs the stuntmen. Naively ringing his boss who turns out to be in league with Thien, Duong puts a target on his own back. Taking his friend Cutie’s (Phat La) advice and the money neighbour Ky (Puka) had been saving for a boob job he heads to Thailand for the gender reassignment surgery he always longed for but could never afford.
The irony is that while Duong is getting her surgery, her father also falls ill and neither she nor her family have money to pay for his treatment having just spent it on her own. Though Duong’s mother had been extremely supportive, giving her all her savings and encouraging her to “get the best surgery and be beautiful”, Duong’s father disowned her on learning of her transgender identity and rejects her when she tries to visit him in hospital. Nevertheless, she remains determined to find the money to pay for his operation which is why she ends up entering the Miss Mother Earth beauty contest which admits only “natural” beauties who’ve achieved their good looks through hard work alone.
While it might be assumed that taking part in a high profile beauty pageant when you’re meant to be in hiding from scary gangsters might not be the best idea, Duong is confident no one is going to recognise her, something that is more or less borne out by the fact that after a series of strange coincidences she ends up sharing a room with Ky who decided to enter to competition herself after catching sight of Cutie’s flyers and appears not to realise who she is. In it for the money more than the affirmation, Duong knows she has to keep her transgender identity secret or risk getting kicked out of the competition while challenged both by the idea of possible romance with sweet and handsome hotel man Tuan (Tuan Tran) and the presence of a gangster mole amongst the beauty queens after Ky in the mistaken belief that she maybe Duong.
“Secrets make a woman a woman” Tuan unironically tells her, but Duong faces a series of very real threats because of her desire to live her truth. Publicly outed in the incident which opened the film, she grabs the mic to give a powerful speech, pointing out that before anyone mentioned the word transgender they all thought she was a hero for saving her friend’s life from a would-be-assassin, now all of a sudden she’s a criminal about to be manhandled off the stage. Yet in defiantly stepping into her own spotlight and claiming her space, she gains the confidence to be all of herself while forcing those around her to accept her as she is. Her new-found confidence inspires Cutie to pursue his own true self, as well as earning her a few fans of her own while the bad guys are forced into silence. A fairly surreal adventure encompassing everything from hitmen conspiracy to beauty pageant backstabbing, Drama Queen never takes itself too seriously but is rigorously sincere in messages of acceptance and the right of all to live their most authentic life.
Drama Queen streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.
Original trailer (no subtitles)