In a world where the mainstream tends to play it safe these days, it is refreshing to see that anything goes in The Tenants Downstairs (樓下的房客), with massive amounts of sex, gore and psychological manipulation that brings the viewer on an unapologetic journey into the dark corners of the human soul.
Our guide through this madness is the unrepentant, disheveled landlord (Simon Yam, 任達華), who spies on the eight seemingly normal but dysfunctional tenants (chosen by him) in his six-room building through hidden cameras. Yam, who has excelled in perverted or psychotic roles back in his native Hong Kong, does a pretty good job with the role of dirty old voyeur at first (the only problem is his Cantonese accent as a Taiwanese character), but his performance reaches another level when the events take a turn toward the deranged as his character decides to interfere with the tenants’ lives, in a very, very sinister way.
Previously shown at the New York Asian Film Festival and the Taipei Film Festival, the movie is an adaptation of Giddens Ko’s (九把刀) novel of the same name. Even without reading the original work, it is safe to assume that the screenplay, also written by Ko, was not toned down too much for the big screen. It as a decent effort from first-time director Adam Tsuei (崔震東), who is not unknown in the entertainment world as a former Sony Music bigwig and producer of two other Ko adaptations, You are the Apple of My Eye (那些年，我們一起追的女孩) and Cafe. Waiting. Love (等一個人咖啡).
Photo Courtesy of atmovies.com
Despite the explicit material, it is still a mainstream film and the story is easy to follow, with the pacing tense and appropriate for the intended audience. The sex and violence pushes the boundaries at times, but as a whole is not excessively graphic, and palatable for the average viewer.
The supporting cast also delivers strong performances that are equally absurd and believable, from the cold, ghostly and eerily sweet Yingru (Ivy Shao, 邵雨薇) who does nefarious things in the bathroom and Chang (Kaiser Chuang, 莊凱勛), the pent-up, also voyeuristic gym teacher, to a sexually repressed father who bathes and shares a bed with his young daughter (Yu An-shun, 游安順). Lee Kang-sheng (李康生), who plays a gay man who is having a secret affair with his younger student, is brilliant as he alters between stoic calmness and bursts of melodrama.
This colorful bunch of people all have their unspeakable desires and secrets, and it is Yam’s job to draw out the worst in them. There is not much to hold them back here — through the all-seeing eye, everybody is completely exposed, and there is no place to hide.
In stark contrast to the disturbing series of events, the scenes are beautifully shot, with slick editing and atmospheric play of light, shadow and color. The mostly-orchestral music is also jarring, and adds to the insanity of it all by making depravity seem almost elegant. The film also keeps it funny, and even during the darkest moments you laugh because of the ridiculousness of what is unfolding.
If you pay enough attention, the film contains many surreal details from the very beginning, leading up to a rather disappointing ending where the filmmakers abruptly shift focus and try to resolve and sum up everything to no avail, leaving more questions than answers. It is a pity, as a film like this is meant to be enjoyed at face value. After 95 minutes of sheer absurdity, the last thing we want is logic.
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