It seems like slow-burning, suffocating family dramas of despair, sorrow and redemption are in fashion in Taiwanese cinema these days. It worked with films like last year’s Golden Horse darling A Sun (陽光普照) and July’s Wild Sparrow (野雀之詩), but not every production warrants this treatment.
It’s not that Dear Tenant (親愛的房客) isn’t deserving of its six Golden Horse nominations. The story of a gay man selflessly caring for his dead lover’s elderly mother and young son tenderly explores the limits of unconditional love and the judgment and misunderstanding society still exhibits towards homosexuality — and from a man who isn’t directly related to the family.
“If I were a woman, and my husband died but I stayed with his family to care for them, would you be asking the same questions?” Chien-yi (Mo Tzu-yi, 莫子儀) asks in one scene.
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Not only does nobody understand why he’s doing what he’s doing — even after he reveals the details of the relationship — he’s being accused of murdering his late partner’s mother (Chen Shu-fang, 陳淑芳) and adopting the son (Pai Run-yin, 白潤音) to claim their house and property.
Chien-yi’s lingering love and regret toward his lost love is apparent and easily understandable, but his relationship with the mother and son are much more complex and even more moving as the parties grapple with their feelings toward each other. On the surface, he’s just a tenant, but there’s so much bubbling underneath. Besides these different faces of love, the film also tackles jealousy, forgiveness and ultimately, setting oneself free.
Director Cheng Yu-chieh (鄭有傑) treats Chien-yi’s struggles and subdued emotionality with great care. The homosexuality is not overstated or intentionally highlighted, its more just a matter of fact, an essential part of the tale Cheng is trying to tell. The discrimination Chien-yi faces is not overt, but deeply ingrained in Taiwan’s patriarchal society and it’s these constant microagressions stemming from a lack of education and understanding that often hurt the most.
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The bleak cinematography and use of a minimal soundtrack with much silence fits Chien-yi’s immensely restrained, yet passionate, personality well, and Mo delivers a delicate, nuanced performance that hits just the right notes for his role. He fully deserves his Best Actor award at July’s Taipei Film Festival.
Chen and Pai are no slouches either, with Pai echoing Mo’s persona, deftly portraying a shy and reserved kid who is emotionally intelligent and wise beyond his years. Whether he is aware of the relationship between Chien-yi and his father doesn’t matter as long as they love him, and it’s an acute statement in a society that is still arguing about LGBTQ education in schools and whether same-sex couples should raise children.
Chen’s character is sick and in constant pain, and misses her deceased son dearly, but she still manages not to seem pitiful and retains her dignity, which is also not easy to convey.
The problem is that despite the complex themes and original topic, the story is actually rather straightforward and it’s not hard to guess what really happened despite Cheng dragging the scenes out to create a sense of suspense. Some sections go on for what seems like forever while the results are already painfully obvious, although there is one twist that is worth the wait.
While this treatment is atmospheric and adds to the characters’ anguish and desperation, it sacrifices intensity and edge, and ultimately the attention of the less patient viewers. The story is still strong enough overall to keep most people in their seats, but a tighter edit would have kept the momentum going throughout such a powerful story.
Other than that one flaw, it’s a movie that’s well worth watching and probably will win big at next months’ Golden Horse Awards.
Dear Tenant 親愛的房客
DIRECTED BY: Cheng Yu-chieh (鄭有傑)
STARRING: Mo Tzu-yi (莫子儀) as Chien-yi, Chen Shu-fang (陳淑芳) as Hsiu-yu and Pai Run-yin (白潤音) as You-yu
LANGUAGE: Mandarin and Taiwanese with English and Chinese subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes
TAIWAN RELEASE: In theaters
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