Tammy Wynette sang it so it must be true: “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.” In the case of Los Angeles-based transgender sex workers Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) in “Tangerine,” the hardships are doubled as they deal with the common issues of being a woman — unfaithful boyfriends, bad clients, being ridiculed and held in contempt by mainstream society — while also facing other prejudices, not to mention competing with cisgender women who knows the ropes a lot better simply because they’ve been playing the game a lot longer.
Meeting just after the U.S. presidential election, the director Sean Baker, who is in Tokyo to promote the film’s release, immediately shows his concerns about the future of transgenders like Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, and about the entire LGBTQ community in general.
“It’s hard to be positive at a time like this, but on the plus side, Hollywood is taking diversity very seriously,” he says. “The whole industry is more conscious about casting sexual minorities and being sensitive to issues concerning LGBTQ and women. So I think we’ll see a lot more of those stories in the next four years.”
“Tangerine” is an uncapped grenade of a movie, with a fiercely provocative narrative propelled by explosive visuals drenched in hues of orange and scarlet. The cameras (actually several iPhones wielded by three people) pursue the two protagonists as they go through their day on Christmas Eve. Sin-Dee is on the streets again after a three-week stint in prison; Alexandra is set to launch a career as a singer and she’s booked to perform that night at a local club.
Their day turns chaotic when Sin-Dee discovers that her boyfriend/pimp Chester (James Ransone) had cheated on her with Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), a cisgender prostitute who turns tricks in a motel room for 10 hours or more a day. Alexandra tries to convince her friend not to go on the warpath, but Sin-Dee is determined to get even, even if it means dragging Dinah through the streets by her long blond hair.
The camerawork offers such an intimacy that you feel as though you only have to reach out to touch the glowing skin on Alexandra and Sin-Dee’s forearms — though they would probably hit you in the face with their shoulder bags.
Released in the U.S. in 2015 and the winner of several awards on the film-festival circuit, “Tangerine” premiered in Japan at the 28th Tokyo International Film Festival in 2015, though it only officially opened last week at the Theater Image Forum in Shibuya.
It has the distinction of being a zero-budget film — Baker and his crew shot everything on iPhones that were outfitted with filming software and lens adapters — all purchased with Kickstarter funds.
“The film first sold at Sundance, which is how we got the money to pay the crew and cast,” says Baker. “People have asked me about the downside of making a movie with iPhones and I honestly can’t think of anything. It saved a ton of money and we were able to shoot guerrilla style without having to go through a lot of red tape. We were able to capture real street life and best of all, iPhones removed the intimidation factor. Often, it takes about a week for actors to get comfortable with the fact that a camera is being shoved in their faces every day, but with an iPhone, they were relaxed from the very beginning.”
Using iPhones also allowed Baker to shoot in cramped spaces, including inside the LA establishment Donut Time, where most of the action takes place.
“You can see that it’s small, but in reality it’s even smaller. You get 10 people in there and it’s like, you can’t breathe,” he says. “A normal film crew would never be able to fit in there.”
Less equipment also meant less staff and Baker adds that film unions require directors to hire a crowd of people, but he didn’t work that way. “Tangerine,” he says, had a tiny crew, with “everyone wearing many hats.”
“One of the producers (Shih Tsing Tsou) was playing the mama-san behind the counter at Donut Time, plus she doubled as the stylist and costumer,” he explains. “The outfits you see on Alexandra and Sin-Dee are her creations.”
After the movie was released in the U.S., Donut Time itself gained fame and it became the “Tangerine” team’s go-to spot for giving interviews.
“Tourists from Australia would freak out as we sat there and say, ‘Oh, my god, it’s the stars of the movie!’ That was pretty cool,” says Baker, who opines that neighborhood places where friends can hang around over dollar coffees like Donut Time are rapidly disappearing from American streets. “There’s a real ’70s vibe to the place. You can almost imagine John Cassavetes filming there.”
Cassavetes is a hero to Baker, who also mourns the dearth of “good, middle-ground films” like “A Woman Under the Influence.”
“It’s all ultra-big-budget movies now, or micro-budget indie films and almost nothing in between. I think it’s up to audiences to say, ‘These are the kinds of things we want to see,’ ” he says. “There has to be loopholes, in society, in filmmaking, in people’s mind-sets — otherwise, it’s going to be a bleak world out there.”
“Tangerine” is now showing at Image Forum. For more details, visit www.imageforum.co.jp/theatre.