Talkin’ Taiwanese New Cinema with Adam Tseui, Ivy Shao, & Li Xing

As a fan of both Asian cinema and things that offend people, I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to interview director Adam Tseui and actresses Ivy Shao and Li Xing.


The 16th annual New York Asian Film Festival came to a close this year with North American premiere of The Tenants Downstairs. It’s a new Taiwanese film from the mind of cult-writer Giddens Ko and first-time director Adam Tsuei, who was the former President of Sony’s Chinese chapter. Also, Tsuei has been involved with Giddens Ko’s film project for years now; this just happens to be his first time directing one of their projects.

The Tenants Downstairs harkens back to the seedy pictures of the golden era of Hong Kong’s Category III. If you aren’t familiar, Category III films are much like our NC-17 films, and although the rating is still used today its “golden age” was considered to be in the late-1980s and ’90s. Some popular Category III films during this time include Raped by an Angel, A Chinese Torture Chamber Story and Naked Killer. So, what I’m trying to get at here is that The Tenants Downstairs isn’t for those who are easily offended. To give you an idea of how depraved this feature is, you could easily make a drinking game out of the number of times people masturbate in this movie—but you might run out of alcohol before the runtime is over.

The film’s plot is simple: A landlord (Simon Yam) recruits some new tenants to live in his building. Unbeknownst to them, he’s a total sadist with an obsession with the dark side of human nature—especially when that dark side comes from a sexual place. He has cameras placed in all the tenants’ rooms, and has all sorts of tricks to use their deepest secrets against them. This creates chaos among the tenants, and everyone seems helpless to their own perversions. The only tenant the landlord struggles to understand is a ghostly looking young woman (Ivy Shao), who seems to be just as disturbed as the landlord. It’s not sex she’s interested in, though, but torture.

As a fan of both Asian cinema and things that offend people, I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to interview director Adam Tseui and actresses Ivy Shao and Li Xing. It’s worth noting that this was a phone interview, as I unfortunately couldn’t make the festival in person. I had never done an interview before quite like this one, as we also had to have a translator on the line. It seemed natural to start with Tseui, commenting on the long working-relationship he’s had with Ko.

“Giddens and I have worked many times before…for over 10 years! We have done many successful films, such as You Are the Apple of My Eye and Café. Waiting. Love. They both did considerably well in the box office in Chinese-speaking countries, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Malaysia.” Adam Tseui is actually being somewhat modest here. You Are the Apple of My Eye was a record-breaking film. It’s currently the all-time highest grossing Taiwanese film at the Hong Kong box office, knocking Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle out the spot—a spot held by Kung Fu Hustle for nearly a decade.

“We also have our producer Angie Chai. Many consider us the ‘the golden triangle team,’ so to speak. Giddens is good at writing scripts and novels and coming up with stories. Angie is good at giving opinions with things like the screenwriting process, where do we film, and whom we should cast. My part is doing the production and post-production on the film. The three of us make a very good team. We have very great collaboration, and we know what each other is good at. That’s why we work together we become the golden triangle team. We’re a super-powered team! We’re like the Avengers!”

tenants“So, um, this is Ivy.” The translator laughs in his baritone voice, as he realizes how ridiculous he sounds. “When I first found out about the project, I wasn’t actually in Taiwan, I was in China. My manager told me about it, and I read the novel. I found out this would be a good challenge for me. I talked to my current projection manager to adjust the schedule so that I would be able to do this part, and it was a very good learning experience for me. I was excited to meet the director, actually. I’m very grateful that the director selected me to play the character.

“My character doesn’t seem to just enjoy killing people. She enjoys it, but also at the same time she feels it’s necessary. It was almost like a ritual to her to perform the murder. I gave myself a bunch of imaginary steaks, and tried to bring some macabre, dark humor into it. My character almost sees killing as simple acts. In terms of actual preparation of my film—”

There’s a pause from the translator after this. It’s funny how you can feel someone smiling even through a phone. I notice he’s struggling to compose himself; it seemed like Shao had something rather funny for him to translate.

“I’d buy meat and go home and end up chopping it all up! Buying the meat, my own experiences, and reading the book and the script—that’s how I prepared.”

“I was quite nervous in the beginning, because I [play a] very sexy [character] in the film,” Li Xing shares about how she felt preparing for her role. You hear some nervous giggling in the background. It’s not clear if it’s coming from Shao or Xing, but it’s the innocent laugh that could come from a young person—someone who’s not tired of these sorts of interviews yet. Both women are up-and-coming actresses, though this was actually Xing’s first feature.

Here’s a piece of advice to Future Cait and others new to interviewing: Don’t ask a first-time actress how they got involved in a project! You’ll look like a doofus, and the answer will always be an awkward one. When I posed this asinine question to Xing, her response was along the lines of, “Uh…I auditioned…?” Luckily, Xing is better at being interviewed than I am at interviewing. After that uncomfortable moment, she opened up about how it felt to be on a film set for the first time.

“Before starting shooting, there was lots of pressure, but once we started shooting I let it all go and I immersed myself in the role. I [focused on] what the role required; being sexy was part of the character. [My emotions] were quite different before [shooting] and after [we started filming].”

One of the bigger challenges for Li Xing’s role is to present herself as a desirable and alluring enough to cause all sorts of chaos amongst the tenants. Her attractiveness—aided by some rather twisted antics from Simon Yam’s character— is what causes much of the chaos among the tenants. “The director, Adam, wanted me to show the best parts of my [physical appearance]. As an actress, you obviously want the best part of yourself shown: the physical side and the acting side. So a lot of time preparing myself for those scenes. That was the major preparation for me.”

The Tenants Downstairs is a film that doesn’t hold back, but somehow even the most extreme scenes seem to go down easy. This is because of how pretty of a movie it is, both visually and in its sound design. It makes even the most offensive content more palatable. When I shared this with Tsuei, he seemed quite pleased.

“I used to work in an advertising agency, and also TV networks. I have quite a lot of experience working with the visual part. I’m also responsible for many MTV music videos. For me, to use visuals and music is paramount on the visual narrative of the film. Also, art design/set design is very important. That’s why each room that belongs to the tenants has its own character. We have a Japanese production team and a Taiwanese production team so our film will stand out. Each room should be different because each tenant is different. Also, I’m a big fan of the past work of the cinematographer I used.” (That cinematographer’s name is Jimmy Yu. He worked on one other feature called Partners in Crime before this one.) “I realize that the films that are out now are [usually] shot on digital, but I really like the look of analog film: celluloid.”

tenants-gayThat was one of those moments where the language barrier gets in the way. I certainly knew that The Tenants Downstairs was shot on digital, and used “film” as a synonym for movie. I guess this is a lesson in being as clear as possible when talking to a translator. This slight miscommunication didn’t bother me too much, because it led to Tseui saying something rather interesting, “To me, it was done in the style of analog film, so that’s why I like hearing people say they like the look of the ‘film.’”

Oh, if only this interview was in person! He would have witnessed a wild look in my eye, and it would have made it easier to follow up with a question.

The reason I was so excited by his comment was that he started to sound like my favorite Taiwanese director: Hou Hsaio-hsien. At the turn of the millennium, Hou and his cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin made something of a foray into digital filmmaking with Millennium Mambo. It wasn’t exactly shot on digital, but they tried to imagine what digital might look like. This was their first time working with it in conceptual way. Mark Lee Ping-bin and Hou tried to do their best to imitate what the impending medium would look like.

Here, Tseui does the opposite: He tries to imitate the past. (Hou and Mark Lee Ping-bin would certainly approve of his efforts, as the two seem very jaded by the potential of digital filmmaking.) Come to think of it, The Tenants Downstairs’ color palette isn’t too far off from Millennium Mambo’s. It seems likely there was at least some visual connection between the two. Plus, music plays a big role in both features, and The Tenants Downstairs features the same award-winning sound design team. Duu-Chih Tu and Shu-yao Wu work on Hou’s newest feature The Assassin, which I also just adore.

Before I got the chance to attempt a follow-up with Tsuei, I was informed that we only had time for one final question. I had to make it a good one, and there seemed to be something major I hadn’t yet addressed. Tsuei has two big-time stars in it the aforementioned Simon Yam and someone I’m a huge dork for: Lee Keng Sheng. Sheng isn’t all that known in the states, but he’s one of the biggest stars in Taiwan. He’s most famous for his work with another acclaimed director of the Taiwanese New Wave, Tsai Ming-Liang.

“To me, working with Simon Yam is very simple, because we’ve known each other for over 20 years. It was a fresh and fun [experience] working with Lee Keng Sheng. He was the Best Actor winner of Taiwan’s Golden Horse Award two years ago. He also has a distinct Taiwanese flavor: The way he acts and talks is very different than a Chinese actor.”

Tsuei isn’t kidding when he says that Sheng brings something distinctly his own to the film. Yes, he does truly bring a Taiwanese feeling, but it goes even deeper than that. Ming-Liang’s Rebels of the Neon God is their first collaboration. It’s also one of my favorite movies, and a big part of that is Sheng’s performance. Sheng has an unusually slow and sleepy presence that he brings, making for a very interesting performer. When Ming-Liang first noticed this strange rhythm of his on set, he asked Sheng to speed it up; Ming-Liang felt he was out of pace with the film and everyone else in it Well, Sheng is uncompromising on this front, forcing Ming-Liang to slow down everything else. This unique pacing has come to define all of Ming-Liang’s work; it’s something critics praise him for. In a way, all of that is in debt to Sheng, making me very curious about how he was on Tsuei’s set.

“I wanted to use Lee because he appears in many of Tsai Ming-liang’s films. Tsai himself was a Golden Horse winner for Best Director, and also because Lee played a lot of gay characters in Tsai’s films. We have a gay couple in this film, and for me gay characters aren’t an easy character to portray. We need someone who has experience portraying [homosexual characters]. It’s important to me that when that person appears in a scene that people can really realize that this is a homosexual.”

As someone who’s seen the film, I can say that Tsuei can feel proud of what he and Sheng accomplish. It’s a very natural performance, and you never once question the validity of the homosexual relationship on screen.

“[Lee Keng Sheng] brings a very local Taiwanese feel [to the movie]. Taiwanese audiences can relate to this character, and immediately associate with him. So, we have a Hong Kong best actor winner working with a Taiwanese best actor winner. It was a contrast, and I’m a very contrast-minded director. I think contrast makes the film more interesting, and more fun.” | Cait Lore

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