It seems like an attempt to make a lofty statement about human nature, but it really just winds up feeling clichéd.
The Tenants Downstairs is the newest project from the mind of controversial Taiwanese writer Giddens Ko. Here in the States, Ko’s works of fiction have yet to be translated, but in China and Taiwan he has a large cult following with a staggering output of work. At his peak, Ko wrote one book per month over a series of 14 months. (That’s like Rainer Werner Fassbinder level of productivity!) Ko’s work tends to cross genres, but he’s most known for working in the categories of science fiction, horror, or romance. In recent years, Ko has started adapting his books into films. 2011’s You Are the Apple of My Eye is an adaption of his own novel that he wrote and directed himself. It’s a romance film based off of Ko’s own experience. The film was mostly liked by critics as well as being a huge financial success. It actually became the all-time highest grossing Taiwanese film at the Hong Kong box office, knocking Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle out the spot its held for nearly a decade.
A coming-of-age romance called You Are the Apple of My Eye sounds pretty sweet, right? How could Ko be so controversial and make something sweet like that? Well, let me clue you in. The Tenants Downstairs, which Ko adapted from his own short story, is a far cry from a romance film. Instead, it’s a film that tries to align itself with Hong Kong’s Category III seedy films. (I’m talking about features like A Chinese Torture Chamber Story, Raped by an Angel, Viva Erotica, etc.) It’s about a devilish landlord (Simon Lam) who is in search for some new tenants. He may hang signs all over town suggesting that “normal people only” apply, but the landlord is more selective than he suggests. He’s a man of particular tastes and seeks out people he thinks can satisfy his sadistic urges. This landlord is a voyeur with a fixation on the dark aspects of human nature.
He seeks out tenants of all different backgrounds: an impossibly attractive business woman, a gym teacher, a hikikomori-like young man, a closeted gay couple, and a recently-divorced father and his little girl. After observing all these tenants closely through cameras he hides in their rooms, the landlord finds ways to exploit their darkness and create chaos amongst them all. Most of the games he plays are sexual in nature; he uses aphrodisiacs to manipulate the tenants into succumbing to their most perverted sexual instincts. (Heads up: There is A LOT of masturbation in this movie.) Some of the best moments involve the hikikomori-type male, as you might imagine. The landlord plays mind games with the young tenant, which leads him to believe that he can teleport. The landlord drugs his food, and then lugs his incapacitated body around only for the young man to wake up to a variety of embarrassing scenarios. These scenes are played for comedy and are perhaps the best scenes the film has to offer. There is one tenant the landlord is too intimidated by to mess with. She’s a mysterious doll-faced girl (Ivy Shao) who seems to be a perfect match for the landlord. Instead of fixating on dark sexual desires, she gets her kicks from acts of violence. It’s when their games start to mix together that things really get out of control.
The Tenants Downstairs is adapted for the screen by Ko, but this time he isn’t directing. Instead we have first-time director Adam Tsuei, but he’s no rookie to the business. Tseui’s an experienced film producer—he’s produced all of Ko’s forays into film—and has served as the former president of Sony Music Entertainment’s Chinese operation. You would never expect this to be the work of a first-time director, as the film is smartly packaged. The camera-work is slick, the colors are lush, and all the different apartments have their own feel to them. All of this adds up to a very dynamic production, though it might be lacking in artistry. Elsewhere, we have a script that really proves Ko to be an experienced writer. He effortlessly moves from comedy to horror to fantasy and then back again. Still, I have some serious reservations with his script. Ko may excel at juggling different tones, but he grossly overestimates the power of his film. It seems like an attempt to make a lofty statement about human nature, but it really just winds up feeling clichéd.
If you’re a fan of the Taiwanese New Wave like me, you may find yourself interested in this film for Lee Kang-sheng. I’m a big fan of Tsai Ming-liang’s Rebels of the Neon God and of Kang-sheng’s performance in that film in particular. (He’s in virtually all of Tsai Ming-liang’s films, as he’s Tsai’s muse.) Here he plays one of the closeted gay tenants, and it really didn’t do too much for me. Generally speaking, I tend to be a fan of movies that most people write off as being too perverted or too graphic—like the Takashi Miike’s films for example.
The Tenants Downstairs is a film that seems made for me, yet I don’t have much use for it. Sure, it’s slick looking and uncompromising in its vision, but it doesn’t have much to say. It sounds appealing on paper, and it’s got a great trailer. It just doesn’t amount to anything memorable. | Cait Lore