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Transgender sex worker fights back from the margins

  • 17 September 2015

Tangerine (MA). Director: Sean Baker. Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O'Hagan, James Ransone. 88 minutes

If the first thing you know about this film is that it was shot on an iPhone 5S, the second thing you need to know is that this is no gimmick but an artistic coup de maître. Sean Baker has created a work whose scope and energy is thoroughly cinematic, with, at the same time, a visibly camera-phone quality that places his audience right in the thick of his on-screen world (the filmmaker has us, literally, in the palm of his hand). Baker, as co-cinematographer (with Radium Cheung), is largely responsible for the film's astutely composed visual scheme, and, as editor, for shaping the footage into a cogent, kinetic whole.

He draws us into a scummy LA 'hood, and the lives of two transgender sex workers, Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Taylor), on the afternoon of what is to be one eventful Christmas Eve. Sin-Dee is just back from a stint in prison, and as the two best friends catch up over a doughnut (singular), Alexandra lets slip that Sin-Dee's pimp boyfriend Chester (Ransone) has been cheating on her. This sets the impetuous Sin-Dee off on a rampage to track down and confront Chester and his mistress, tailed by a conciliatory Alexandra. The events of the ensuing hours will test and fortify their fiery friendship.

The righteous quest leads them (and us) on a tour of the precinct's hubs and hangouts. Some are innocuous — doughnut shop, burrito bar, coin laundry — while others are unsettling, such as the squalid motel room where a dozen prostitutes service clients on whatever patch of floor happens to be vacant. (Sin-Dee, notably, does not flinch in the face of what must be for her a familiar scene; likewise, Baker as filmmaker regards all this with a level and non-judgemental gaze.) It is here that Sin-Dee tracks down her rival, Dinah (O'Hagan), who proves to be a far greater foil for her fury than expected.

A subplot concerning Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karagulian), a client of both Alexandra and Sin-Dee, provides another angle. Razmik's proclivity for transgender women is laid bare in a scene where he becomes outraged at a prostitute he has engaged, upon discovering that she is biologically female. As such, he both normalises and fetishises transgenderism. As a recent migrant who is marginalised in his own way, Razmik is a sympathetic character, though