Over a nearly 20-year career, Monika Treut has established herself as one of the paramount directors of lesbian and transgender cinema. A quick look at her filmography reveals a shortlist of major touchstones of the genre, including such notable contributions as The Virgin Machine and Female Misbehavior. Her credentials, however, make it all the more surprising that she cannot effectively pull off Ghosted, a thoroughly run-of-the-mill mystery dressed up as countercultural by the inclusion of an interracial lesbian relationship.
In the film, Ai-Ling (Huan-Ru Ke) travels from Taipei to work in her uncle’s Taiwanese restaurant in Hamburg, searching for answers about her father, who passed away at an early age. While in Germany, Ai-Ling runs into Sophie Schmidt (Inga Busch), a video artist/documentarian who becomes intrigued by Ai-Ling’s slightly overstated submissive personality. Busch, a veteran of Berlin’s haut art scene, gives a stiff and somewhat awkward performance that helps neither her nor the forced story her character inhabits.
As Sophie and Ai-Ling become romantically entwined, eventually cohabiting a stylish loft right in the middle of fashionable Hamburg, the expected social commentary becomes a veritable drum beat, keeping the story ideologically grounded. Ai-Ling’s attachment to her mother and traditional sensibilities prompt Sophie to offer her candy-ass bromides about how she should emancipate herself from her family and learn to break away from the confining influence of her Asian culture, naturally followed by clichéd ripostes on Ai-Ling’s part about how messed-up it is that Sophie hardly speaks to her own parents.
The problem with Treut’s treatment of this admittedly fertile subject matter is how flat it all turns out. I’m reminded of Walker Percy’s final novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, written when the author was at a point in his life where the brilliant character development of his past works gave way to excruciatingly obvious moral judgments about modern society. Instead of showing us the difficulties of maintaining a cross-cultural relationship without support from friends or family, Treut opts simply to tell us how hard it is through dialogue seemingly written by a first-year playwriting student. What makes the story even more implausible is the fact that the actors themselves palpably exude an air of not believing themselves.
The story falls squarely into the mystery genre once Ai-Ling dies. With no clues as to who killed her, Sophie is heartbroken, but you wouldn’t really know it, save for the fact that she literally says out loud that she’s miserable without her lost lover. In order to grieve, Sophie creates a video portrait of Ai-Ling, which she debuts at a gallery in Taipei. In the audience is Mei Li (Ting Ting Hu), a journalist wanting an interview with the elusive Sophie. After the two spend a sexually charged, though chaste, evening together at a local outdoor market, Sophie returns to Hamburg.
Mei Li follows Sophie back to Germany with more questions about her relationship with Ai-Ling, and an element of the supernatural enters the picture, thereby saving Treut from further attempts at character development. With slight nods in David Lynch’s direction, the film becomes increasingly foreboding toward its end, but this intentional obscurity does not make up for the stale and lazily filmed action of the movie's first half. Treut’s execution of Ghosted is as naïve as it is boring. The subject matter could have engendered an intelligent story, but the director’s depiction of her characters’ relationships end up one-dimensional and trite. Let’s all hope this is a temporary setback in Treut’s otherwise adventurous and trailblazing career.