The Tenants Downstairs (Taiwan, 2016) [NYAFF 2016]
Though The Tenants Downstairs is Adam Tsuei’s directorial debut, those familiar with the Asian entertainment media landscape of the last couple of decades may know that he already has quite a commanding, prestigious reputation. Following a decade-long stint as the Sony BMG Music Entertainment Senior Vice President for greater China and Managing Director for Sony BMG Music Entertainment Taiwan (during which time he promoted the likes of Jay Chou and Jolin Tsai), in 2011 he took the risk of devoting himself entirely to film productions. Thus far, the risk has been met with acclaim in both mainland China and Taiwan, from which he hails. And thus far, Tsuei’s involvement in movie-making has concentrated on adaptations of novels written by young Chinese and Taiwanese writers: he helped to produced and promote Taiwanese novelist Giddens Ko’s directorial debut You Are the Apple of My Eye (2011), based on his book; he did the same for Chinese writer Guo Jingming with Tiny Times (2013), which is based on Guo’s book and has spawned three more films. In between these two films, he founded Amazing Film Studio in 2012. Tsuei’s collaboration with Ko in particular has been significant. It has led to not only producing an adaptation of another of his novels with Cafe. Waiting. Love (2014, dir. Chiang Chin-lin), but perhaps influenced Tsuei’s decision to adapt yet another of Ko’s novels for his directorial debut with The Tenants Downstairs, with Ko himself writing the screenplay. Though Tsuei’s direction is self-effacing, he handles Ko’s material — which could have easily been exploitation fodder — with a respect and precision, no doubt a product of their ongoing collaboration and thus turns in a solid genre-meshing experiment on the every murky line between public and private.
The film is essentially an extended flashback of the goings-on in a multistory apartment building, while framing the flashback are scenes in a police interrogation room. Linking the two spaces is the landlord (played by veteran Hong Kong actor Simon Yam), who remains nameless throughout the film. How exactly the two spaces are linked through the landlord constitutes the flashback, with the landlord as an eager storyteller.
With no explanation as to how he actually obtained possession of the apartment building, which had seen better days prior to a massive overhaul, the landlord describes to the police officer the tenants that move in and who become the subject of his gaze: the quiet divorcé Mr. Wang (Yu An-shun) and his young daughter; gay couple Guo Li (Lee Kang-sheng) and Linghu (Bernard Sen Jun); Boyan (Yan Sheng-yu), an example of what the landlord calls ‘human waste’; office worker Miss Chen (Li Xing); Mr. Chang (Cash Chuang Kai-hsun), a P.E. teacher and another divorcé, and who shares with the landlord the habit of being a peeping tom; and Yingru (Shao Yu-wei), a mysterious woman always clad in white and whose gait is ghostly slow, prompting the landlord to describe her as ‘a blank sheet of paper.’ A lively montage accompanies the landlord’s descriptions, efficiently and effectively establishing the character of each of these tenants’ lives. He comes to know their lives very well, unbeknownst to them, for his most treasured discovery upon inspecting the building before renovations is a curious room at the top filled with surveillance monitors that provide an omniscient view of all of the apartments and their rooms. Rather than locking his gaze towards the outside world, he does so inwardly, assiduously watching the monitors as if preparing for an exam. His tenants’ lives is his television and reality simultaneously. Though little to nothing is known about the landlord in terms of family and/or friends, the importance of this detail does not emerge, overshadowed as it is by the lives of others.
Initially, the landlord is content to simply spy on his tenants, even at their most intimate moments, through the monitors. He even takes notes of their daily routines. However, he is unable to break the code, as it were, to the enigmatic Yingru, in whose chilling room filled with unemptied suitcases he finds himself stuck at one point and therefore witnesses an increasingly gruesome ritual of killing. Yet he does not report her to the police. In this way, he becomes an accomplice to her murders, whether he likes it or not – in fact, this notion of accomplice is precisely the film’s big twist/reveal in the end. His status as Yingru’s accomplice deepens when he has a conversation with her about being deadlocked (i.e. stuck in a routine) and how to break from it. He promptly decides ‘to break the deadlock in everyone’s life!’, he tells the cop.
No longer content with simply watching his tenants, he proceeds to physically intervene with their lives in a manner he thinks fit according to each tenant’s deadblock life, coming and going in the tenants’ apartments when they are not around. His schemes present a morbid psycho-social experiment befitting a media landscape saturated with reality TV, YouTube, and Instagram that has redefined what privacy means. Like in a later scene where the landlord performs as if he were a conductor for the cop, he literally orchestrates their lives, ultimately inducing a small world of entropy inside the building.
An announcement regarding a lost set of keys sets into motion the narrative’s road towards disorder. It gradually breaks down the walls of privacy not only between the landlord and his tenants but also between the tenants themselves. Tenants appear in others’ apartments and, accordingly, discord is sown among them. Consequently, the perceptual barrier between self and other also breaks down, which gives way to a disoriented sense of one’s own actions — that is, no longer knowing if one has committed such an action or not; by extension, it also gives way to a rather philosophical query about the relationship between privacy and identity.
Yam as the landlord shows yet again that he is capable of inhabiting any role given to him while he is supported by a very capable cast, particularly the always magnetic Lee. Both lend a dramatic seriousness to the film’s proceedings even as events devolve into grisliness.
The Tenants Downstairs is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Saturday July 9 at 9:00pm at the SVA Theatre. This screening is presented with the support of the Taipei Cultural Center of TECO in New York.Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.