Simon Yam. My sole reason for seeking out Adam Tsuei's The Tenants Downstairs [Lou Xia De Fang Ke]. I'm usually not big on actors and Simon Yam isn't one of my absolute favorites, but the man knows to pick his films and even though few of them end up on my top shelf, a lot of his work is above-average filler. So I went in with modest expectations, what I found blew me away. The Tenants Downstairs is one of the classiest, yet most depraved, yet weirdly hilarious films I've seen in a long, long time.
There used to be a time when Taiwanese cinema was pretty safe. Up until 10 years ago (a rough estimate), most of the films coming out of Taiwan were rather traditional but pleasant arthouse-leaning dramas. Not the most exciting of films, but good nonetheless. But then a new generation of directors emerged and things became a little less predictable. Not that there's a constant stream of crazy, genre-bending Taiwanese films being released each year, but once in a while you'll find something that takes you by surprise. Even so, little could've prepared me for The Tenants Downstairs.
The film is a collaboration between writer/director Giddens Ko (who adapted his own novel here) and Adam Tsuei, former producer turned director. The two are mostly known for their involvement in slick, sugary and highly commercial projects (You Are the Apple of My Eye, Tiny Times), which makes it even harder to explain how the both of them came to make a film like this one. Clearly their team-up works better when Ko is penning the screenplay and Tsuei takes over the director's chair.
The Tenants Downstairs starts off like a modern-day Taiwanese remake of Phillip Noyce's Sliver, but quickly becomes a lot more intriguing. Yam acts as landlord of a old house, which he inherited from an acquaintance. With the house came a little shed on the roof, where a bunch of monitors allow Yam to spy on his tenants. Yam quickly finds peace with his voyeuristic side, but when Chang Ying-Ju moves in things get a little freaky. Ying-Ju somehow convinces Yam that people's inhibitions prevent them from living their lives in freedom. With little else to do besides keeping track of his tenants' lives, Yam vows to give them a little helping hand.
Looking at the plot and cast, The Tenants Downstairs could've been a Herman Yau film and it would've been perfectly fine. But Tsuei had bigger aspirations. Both visuals and soundtrack elevate it far above its peers, providing the necessary contrast with the content of the film. The camera work is delicate and dreamy, lighting and use of color is spectacular and even though it doesn't deviate too much from the classic Taiwanese aesthetic, it still comes off as modern and contemporary.
The score also plays an important part here. There aren't many typical horror build-ups and there isn't much in the way of suspense-driven music, instead Tsuei opts for a subtler, classier score which he at least in part helped write. This kind of involvement usually bodes well for a film and The Tenants Downstairs is no exception. While the music itself isn't too original, it's used in a very smart and distinct way and the atmosphere feels deliberate and well-considered at all times.
Simon Yam isn't just the big star of this film, if you ask me he turned in the best performance of his entire career. Those who are aware of Yam's track record know he's acted in an ungodly amount of films, so that's saying something. His performance has just the right amount of creepy and comedy, repulsing and delighting at the same time. But he's not the only notable addition to the cast, Tsuei also managed to land Tsai protege Kang-sheng Lee and found an incredible upcoming talent in Yu-Wei Shao.
What makes The Tenants Downstairs so special is the surprising contrast between the styling, the plot and the layer of dark comedy on top. If Tsuei's direction had followed more traditional horror conventions it still would've been a good film, but the impact would've been considerably smaller. There are a couple of scenes that are crazy and depraved regardless of how they are presented, but to have everything look so dreamy and stylish makes the fucked up bits all the more impressive. To finish that off with some devilish smirks is just absolute genius.
The only part of the film that didn't feel entirely satisfactory is the ending. You need to be a little forgiving with the suspension of disbelief here, which is doable because the film isn't too serious. Yam's character is pretty out there and even though you could question his actions and motives, he's a fun character regardless. Sadly Ko and Tsuei felt the need to try and explain his actions at the end of the film, which felt unnecessary to me. The ending is pretty textbook too, with some simple reasons and motivations given for Yam's behavior, but ultimately it only takes away from his character. It doesn't ruin the film, not by a long shot, but it's simply not needed.
The rest of the film is pure genius though. It's stylish, classy, funny and revolting. The acting is top-notch, the film looks incredible and the soundtrack adds a lot of atmosphere. I'm thoroughly impressed by this Ko/Tsuei collaboration, especially in this particular writer/director configuration. I truly hope they continue to work together. That said, The Tenants Downstairs is a tough recommend, as it might not do well with people expecting a traditional horror film, while at the same time some of the more dubious plot points might turn away people looking for more serious films. If you love a good genre bender and you don't mind a good surprise, be sure to seek this one out though.