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