Movie Review – The Tenants Downstairs

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EXPECTATIONS: A soft and fluffy version of the Category III Hong Kong films of yore.

REVIEW:

NOTE: This review is for the revised 98 minute version, not for the 110 minute version.

Giddens Ko is well-known in Taiwan for being the author of such hits like The Apple of My Eye, which spawned renewed interest in the young love genre, as well as he comedy hit The Killer Who Never Kills and the romance Cafe, Waiting Love. Whereas Adam Tsuei is well-known for bringing musical stars into the spotlight like Jay Chou and Leehom Wang, as well as producing some of Gidden’s projects as well as the Tiny Times films.

So, when you see the two work together for their latest project, you’d expect them to work on something fluffy and crowd-pleasing. Thankfully, they brought out their latest project, The Tenants Downstairs, a depraved throwback to the Category III Hong Kong films of yore, starring genre stalwart, Simon Yam. But considering their past work, will it be homogenized and watered-down, or will it be hard-hitting and pack a serious punch?

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The film starts off with an unnamed and enigmatic landlord (Simon Yam) sitting in an interrogation room, preparing to tell a story to a police detective (Kai Fung) which is described as “a story out of your imagination”. Then it flashes back to the landlord inheriting the apartment complex and discovering the surveillance room, which has cameras in all of the apartments.

Then over time, a group of tenants reside in the complex and which include Kuo Li (Lee Kang-sheng) and Linghu (Bernard SenJun), a gay couple attempting to hide their relationship; divorced gym instructor Chang (Chuang Kai-hsun) who has a penchant for expired milk and is a ball of repressed rage that would make Adam Sandler blush; depressed single father Wang (Phil Yan) who harbours more than just love for his young daughter (Angel Ho); Miss Chen (Li Xing), an office worker with an insatiable thirst for her work in the horizontal refreshment industry and Boyan (Yan Sheng-yu) is a student who loves video-games and another private game where he always wins.

Last but definitely not least is Yingru (Ivy Shao), a beautiful and seemingly angelic young woman whose apartment is strangely stacked with many suitcases. And there’s also a victim in her bathtub who is being tortured, you know the usual. So after the landlord discovers her secret, he becomes fascinated about the dark side of human nature and decides to prod and push his tenants to embrace their darkest desires and to commit the most depraved acts.

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As you can tell from the synopsis, there really isn’t much of a plot here. And the humour in which is peppered in it is in actuality how the film is presented; humour that is macabre and twisted. And boy, is it twisted. There is a fine line between sadistic and comedic, but director Adam Tsuei and writer Giddens Ko walk on it incredibly well.

Scenes involving dragging bodies has never looked funnier, especially when the magic of “teleportation” is involved. The use of classical music alleviated the effect of the atrocities that happen on-screen with enough dark humour and the cast are wholly committed to the proceedings. Whether they are doing something physically taxing or doing something prurient beyond their sexual realms, the cast are all on their A-game.

Simon Yam shows why he’s fantastic in portraying psychos and insane lunatics back in the 90’s and he is full of life here in the role of the landlord. Whether he is dragging a body, sticking it to the man, dancing majestically or sinking his own submarine to those who are sharpening their power tools, it is a pleasure to see Yam back in a role that will please Category III cinema lovers.

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Tsai Ming-liang’s favourite collaborator Lee Kang-sheng can do any of the stuff he does in the film in his sleep, if films like Rebels of the Neon God is any indication. And even after a stroke he had suffered two years ago, Lee still does well with his performance. Bernard Senjun plays the student/mistress of Kuo Li and he gives a good performance as the gradually lovelorn yang to Kuo Li’s tempered yin.

Chuang Kai-hsun plays his jackass of a role convincingly, as he shows both repressed and expressive rage with ease. He really takes it up a notch when he acts alongside Li Xing, leading to some intense scenes. The latter is fantastic as Miss Chen, even when her character takes part in the more prurient aspects of the film, she never makes her character feel like she has no choice in the life she’s chosen. Li exudes confidence and strength in the role that probably was not present in the script.

Phil Yan is fine as the sexually repressed father, as he definitely looks the part of an average joe, which makes it creepier when he embraces both his inner child and actual child while Angel Ho is likewise fine as the daughter, who acts in scenes that really seem like the film-makers are breaking laws to film.

Yan Sheng-yu is funny as the self-gratifying slacker who believes he has the power of “teleportation”. His physical comedy does lead to some funny moments including “literally” taking one for the team and especially a part in the climax, which results in the best use of a body part since 1993’s wuxia comedy, The Eagle Shooting Heroes.

But the biggest standout of the film is Ivy Shao. Exuding an understated creepiness underneath her angelic smile and bright white wardrobe, she sends chills to the audience every time she shows up. Her performance is quite reminiscent of Eihi Shiina’s performance in Takashi Miike’s cult classic, Audition, and it is a wonder to witness.

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The film is also magnificently well-shot and edited, making the film more prestigious than it really should, but fortunately director Adam Tsuei never tells the story more than it actually is: a series of unsavory events twisted up in a line of insanity, depravity and abnormality.

If Tsuei had taken the film seriously, it would have ended up like one of Hong Kong director Wong Ching-po’s films, which can be incredibly pretentious. The production design by Kei Itsusuji and cinematography by Jimmy Yu make Simon Yam’s house of horrors look strikingly beautiful; even with the shocking events that occur, you cannot take your eyes away.

As for flaws, the film lacks a lot of explanation with its story, although that may have been the result of the shorter cut which was released at NYAFF 2016, because apparently, the full theatrical cut is 110 minutes and has scenes of exposition that further explain the landlord’s backstory, his motives, other backstories of various characters and a sense of logic to the proceedings.

But whether this is a flaw depends on your preference. If you prefer ambiguity and leaving it up to your imagination, the shorter cut certainly does that. But if you want things tied up neatly, the longer cut may do the trick.

Overall, The Tenants Downstairs is a fantastic throwback to the Category III films of the 90’s that will sicken, surprise and amuse many with its sexual deviancy, shocking depravity and sheer lunacy. And with a wonderfully committed cast and its fantastic production values, The Tenants Downstairs is my top guilty pleasure of the year that brought a huge demented smile on my face.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The entire cast are all committed to the insane shenanigans

The production values make the film look and sound fantastic

The fine line between sadism and dark comedy is trodden well

CONS

Lack of explanations of the proceedings

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Simon Yam Tat-wah, Ivy Shao (Shao Yu-wei), Lee Kang-sheng, Chuang Kai-hsun, Phil Yan, Li Xing, Yan Sheng-yu, Bernard SenJun, Angel Ho, Chen Mu-yi, Chou Hsiao-an, Kai Fung
Director: Adam Tsuei
Screenwriters: Giddens Ko, based on his novel of the same name

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Movie Review – Fist Fight

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EXPECTATIONS: Something that would make me laugh in spite of how stupid it all is.

REVIEW: If there’s one thing everybody can say about this film, it is that the film is punchy. Studio comedies nowadays are very underwhelming the past few years, especially from studios like Warner Brothers (the less said about Hot Pursuit, the better), regardless of the comedic talent involved.

So when I heard about this film that has a wonderfully simple premise with a capable cast and the promise of Ice Cube, who is gleefully self-aware of his gung-ho persona, beating the crap out of Charlie Day, who alternately amuses as well as annoys, was enticing. So does the film amuse despite its minute ambitions?

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Charlie Day plays a mild-mannered English teacher who is currently working the last day of school. You would figure that this would be quite exciting for him to rest after the term is over but it is anything but.

The school he works at is incredibly chaotic, with unruly students, off-kilter teachers (consisting of Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell and Christina Hendricks) and total anarchy; his wife (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) is pregnant; his teenage daughter (Alexa Nisenson) is in need of his presence of her school talent show and his job (alongside most of the faculty) is at risk.

But his life is put to the test when a¬†colleague (Ice Cube) who thinks he is trying to get him fired challenges him to a fist fight after school. With all the fuss that is going on, will Charlie Day have his…day?

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First off, the biggest laugh I had about Fist Fight is the fact that almost every synopsis of the film states that Charlie Day‘s character is mild-mannered. So when your film’s biggest laugh is in its synopsis, your film’s got problems.

Let’s get to the positives, which there are surprisingly more than some would think. The cast, mainly the two leads, are certainly talented and way overqualified for the material they have and they try to make the most out of it. Charlie Day does his loud-mouthed and high-pitched persona as he always does, but he fits it to his character quite well, making him almost pathetically human. It also helps that his chops in physical comedy is put to good use; particularly during a scene where his character has to hide.

Ice Cube‘s self-awareness of his persona still pays off with some amusing moments which actually makes his character morally upright, in an albeit ridiculously sublime way. Sure, his character brandishes an axe and wants to fight a staff member, but considering the fantasy world the film inhabits in and the insufferable environment the characters live in, the man’s got a point.

And what’s also a minor surprise is that the film actually has some storytelling chops. Charlie Day‘s character actually has an arc which does pay off quite well, and the film actually feels assembled, unlike most comedies, which feels like a bunch of sketches stitched together to make a film. Jokes, whether they were hit-and-miss, are thankfully character-based and are not overly reliant on pop-culture, just to pander to its demographic.

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What is unfortunate is that the film’s script isn’t that funny and the supporting cast are either on auto-pilot, given unfunny material or worse, given absolutely nothing to do. Tracy Morgan is just doing what he always does: Tracy Morgan. Which is fine in television and small doses but in Fist Fight and frankly, 90% of his films, it just irritates more than amuses.

Jillian Bell, who has given funny performances in the past like in The Night Before and 22 Jump Street, is given terrible material to work with, which revolves her character being horny towards her students. It’s not only unfunny due to its tiresome repetition, but it ends up being creepy, saying that teachers having sexual relationships with students is meant to be humourous. At least with a similar joke in 21 Jump Street, the audience obviously knew that Channing Tatum’s character wasn’t a student (which is the joke), but in Fist Fight, it just looks wrong.

As for Christina Hendricks, between this and Bad Santa 2, her talents are incredibly wasted, as she is given incredibly little to do. It’s hard to blame her for making such little impression, especially with the little material to work with and the small amount of screen-time to work in. I just felt sorry for her. Kumail Nanjiani also does what he can as a lazy security guard while Dean Norris, famous for Breaking Bad, is amusing as an angry principal, but his main running joke is one that was stolen from The Heartbreak Kid.

As for the fight itself, is it worth the wait? Surprisingly, yes and no. The fight scene itself is well-assembled and choreographed and clearly has a Jackie Chan-influence with the use of improvised weapons. But the fight unfortunately ends with a whimper, due to its lack of structure and pacing, making the conclusion feel like a cop-out.

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Despite the efforts of the cast and its simple yet ripe premise and some surprisingly coherent storytelling, Fist Fight just isn’t worth the wait, due to its very patchy script.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The two leads try their best

Surprisingly solid storytelling

CONS

Annoying/underused supporting cast

Unfunny script

Anti-climactic title fight

SCORE: 5/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Ice Cube, Charlie Day, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Dean Norris, Christina Hendricks, Kumail Nanjiani
Director: Richie Keen
Screenwriter: Van Robichaux, Evan Susser, Max Greenfield

My confession and the power of film.

This is different from what I usually write so I’m not going to pull any punches about it. My name is Harris Dang. And I used to be a homophobe. You’re probably wondering why I would be declaring such a controversial fact about myself at this time but seeing how we’re living in a time where political correctness has become a blessing and a curse for many of us, I thought it would be the right time to talk about parts from my past that had changed my life, opened my eyes and had made me a better person, thanks to a single film.

It is often said that people fear what they don’t understand, and in my case, it wasn’t just fear, but often denial and even outright anger. I remember at an early age, my friends (who shall remain nameless) and I had watched the Robin Williams film called The Birdcage, which many film-goers know, is a story about a gay couple who have to help their son and his fiance get the approval of the fiance’s conservative parents of marriage.

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Right after watching it on VHS, we were impersonating as well as ridiculing the gay characters on-screen to the point that we were calling each other gay, as if it was the biggest insult that we’ve ever heard. Now this is where it gets controversial as one of my friends had mentioned a pact that during our friendship, if one of us outs himself and the others would know, they have the privilege to beat him to death. And to my great and long-lasting shame, regardless of whether it was seen a joke, I agreed to it in less than a second.

The pact was always brought up whenever we saw something that had a gay person in it, and it just made me angrier and angrier. Even without the mention of the pact, noticing any sense of what I perceived as “gay” had a hold on me. Like times when I was seeing an episode of The Simpsons or noticing any sense of supposed flamboyancy, it really got on my nerves. I’ve gotten into arguments over family members, friends and even made bad impressions to people on the street.

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It was then, through high school, where I had reached breaking point. It was when the Ang Lee film Brokeback Mountain had came out and people were raving about it and I had an argument with my then-girlfriend about whether I wanted to see it. I had said incredibly stupid and hateful things like seeing two men together is just plain wrong and worst of all, any one who likes gay people are fucking idiots. Just typing it out leaves me in disbelief. I had become poisonous to everyone around me and I finally became incredibly tired and alone.

My only solace was watching movies. Lots and lots of them. I had barely gone out with my friends; just going to school and then straight home. I watched lots of foreign movies and had particularly gained an interest in Japanese cinema (thanks to Hana and Alice). It was one time when my then-girlfriend had brought me a CD with a movie in it and she told me to watch it, without saying anything about it.

I started watching it, and it featured two of my favourite Hong Kong actors in a setting that was different that I expected from a Hong Kong film. The soundtrack was alluring, the cinematography was rich in colour and the acting was realistic that I started relating to them quite easily. And by the end of the film, without any restraint, I burst into tears. And that film was Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together.

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Throughout the film, we see the relationship between the characters, played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Leslie Cheung, fall in and out of love, and I started to think that the characters are just like people in the real world; people with wants and needs, fortunes and misfortunes and flaws. The way that Wong shows the passage of time in the film (the jump-cuts, the slow-motion, the changes in frame rate, the long takes) is so well-done, that I honestly felt the film was the longest film experience I’ve witnessed. And I mean it in the best possible way. The scene where Fai and Wing are dancing in the kitchen is a perfect example of love and tenderness that you wish that it’ll never end.

I learned from the film that if one person can have a relationship with another with this much brimming emotion and heart, that it cannot possibly be bad. It was a bit tough going from then on, handling a few misunderstandings, mending relationships and also losing a few friends in the process. People had asked Wong Kar-wai about the meaning of the title and he had said that the title can be related to one’s self and his/her past. And that is definitely how I feel. I am happy about myself and I am definitely happy about my past because without it, I can’t be the more enlightened person that I am today.

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On another note that isn’t about me, it really is amazing to see films of similar thematic power to Happy Together like Moonlight, The Handmaiden and Call Me by Your Name coming out in cinemas this year and to sound really preachy, I really hope that those films will have an impact on cinema-goers who are going through what I have gone through. It’s time to hang up the hate, people. It’s incredibly exhausting.

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Movie Review – Fences

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EXPECTATIONS: A stageplay that lacks cinematic panache on the screen with fantastic performances.

REVIEW: Films that are adapted from a stageplay have always had a mixed reception. While we have classics like Glengarry Glen Ross and Sweeney Todd, we sometimes have disasters like Rent and Mamma Mia! The reason for this is because the stories of these plays do not have enough cinematic potential to succeed as a film-viewing experience or the director unfortunately isn’t capable enough to realize that potential.

So when I heard that Denzel Washington‘s next directorial project was a film based on a stageplay that he had starred in alongside the majority of the cast (including Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson and Russell Hornsby) from the stageplay reprising their roles, it tickled my curiosity. Does Washington succeed by jumping over the fence?

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Set in the 1950’s, Denzel Washington stars as Troy Maxson, a waste collector who lives with his loving wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo). He spends the long shifts of work, doing what he can for his family, alongside his best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson).

We see frequent visits from other members of the family like Troy’s estranged son from another marriage, Lyons Maxson (Russell Hornsby) who frequently comes over the family home asking Troy for money; and from Troy’s brother, Gabriel Maxson (Mykelti Williamson), who sustained a head injury from World War II, leaving him mentally impaired.

Throughout the course of the film, we see the development of the characters and how much they feel constricted and restrained in their environment to the point that when the film reaches the third act, the characters will reach their breaking point. In other words, it’s not pretty.

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With this much acting talent and with Denzel Washington at the helm and a critically acclaimed screenplay by August Wilson, who wrote the stageplay, why is it that I don’t like the film as much as I wanted to? Probably because it’s just a stageplay playing on a cinema screen and not an actual film.

Let’s get to the positives first. With the exception of one, the acting is absolutely stellar. Considering that Washington and Davis both won Tony Awards for their performances in the stageplay, it’s expected. Washington shows both charisma, cockiness and menace in a compelling manner while Davis surprises, breathing life into a typical supporting wife role that could’ve been a waste of talent, but she easily upstages Washington.

Jovan Adepo does good work as Cory, the conflicted son who wants to achieve his dreams but also wants to impress his father, leading him with some very impressive and intense scenes with Washington. Stephen Henderson is fantastic as Bono that he make it incredibly easy to believe that he is best friends with Troy, as the two share wonderful chemistry, whether its friendly banter or heart-to-heart talks.

Russell Hornsby is also convincing as Troy’s estranged son, Lyons, as he provides ample proof of again, cockiness and charisma, that he makes it easy to believe that his character is the son of Troy. But the exception out the cast is Mykelti Williamson. I don’t know whether I was meant to take him seriously or to laugh with him, so I laughed at him instead. The acting borders on comical that it almost feels that he just wondered in on set and no one bothered to tell him that they were filming.

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Speaking of his character and flaws of the film, Gabriel basically embodies the trope of what I like to call the “bullshit-detector”; i.e. the character that despite their lack of social skills reveals the flaws and warts about the characters around more than the characters realize and is basically present in the film to add artificial tension. Michael Shannon is a blatant example of that in the film Revolutionary Road, in which they are more like plot devices rather than actual characters.

And don’t get me started on Gabriel’s role in the ending, which I didn’t believe for a second, despite the religious imagery peppered throughout the film i.e. the Jesus plate in the kitchen. It doesn’t help that the character of Troy is unlikable and unsympathetic that the ending even makes him more repugnant as it is made obvious that even after the events of the film, Troy is still using his brother Gabriel for his own ends.

Another flaw is the stagy feel, leaving the film lacking in cinematic panache that would have benefited the storytelling. There are scenes where Troy recounts his past that could have benefited from flashbacks to that time to keep the film interesting, but Washington never realizes that potential, leaving those scenes surprisingly lifeless as well as dragging the film’s already long running time.

Oddly enough, there’s a scene in the end of the film where two characters share a song together that is really effective in showing how big of an influence one can have on another, regardless of how they feel. But it is again ruined by a scene that feels so fake and unearned that it you wish it was cut out and it finished with the song. And once again, you guessed it, it involves Williamson‘s performance.

The stagy feel even affects the performances. While the loud, unhinged performances may work on a stageplay but on film, the performances may come across as unintentionally funny at times, like Davis‘ performance when she confronts Troy about a choice he made as well as Williamson‘s performance throughout the film.

And you would think that the performances were blatant enough to deliver the film’s messages and themes for the audience to understand, there are some egregious uses of dialogue and visual metaphors that comes across as cheesy, insistent and quite insulting.

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Lines of dialogue like “fences were built to keep people…maybe they are built to keep people in” or visual metaphors like a rose being crushed on a fence before falling to the ground while Rose gets upset (Damaged Rose with a damaged rose, get it?) just fall flat and could even inspire unintentional laughter.

So even with the acting and the talent behind the camera, Fences was a disappointment. The majority of the cast in the film were fantastic with their roles and August Wilson‘s screenplay shines at times, but the flat yet blatant direction, the unsubtle storytelling and Mykelti Williamson‘s performance just inspired me to want to build a fence around it.

I realize that this review may polarize many but hey, as this film taught me, you “gotta take the crookeds with the straights.”

Quickie Review

PROS

The acting from the majority of the cast is stellar

August Wilson’s screenplay intermittently shines

CONS

The stagy, confined feel of the film

Mykelti Williamson’s laughable performance

Blatant yet flat direction from Denzel Washington

Unintentionally hilarious moments like the use of visual metaphors and abysmal dialogue

Overlong running time

SCORE: 4/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney
Director: Denzel Washington
Screenwriter: August Wilson, based on the stageplay of the same name