In its domestic market of Taiwan, showbiz svengali Adam Tsuei’s directorial debut is available in 4D: motion seats will shake accordingly when a couple copulate onscreen, while an airstream whips across the viewer’s face when a character gets a mighty slap on the cheek. While obviously a marketing gimmick – the effects technology even gets a namecheck in one scene – it speaks volumes about the tone of The Tenants Downstairs. Offering plentiful of transgressive images backed with a ceaselessly bombastic symphonic score, this sex-and-violence feast is calculated to shock – which is hardly a shock itself, given Tsuei’s stellar record in producing and marketing pop idols (Jay Chou, Jolin Tsai) and blockbuster rom-coms (You Are the Apple of My Eye, Tiny Times).
Taiwanese audiences, who helped propel the film to box-office gold during its opening weekend, have somehow embraced Tenants because of its outré hipness. Publicists have placed much emphasis on the film’s restrictive 18+ (NC-17) rating, a rarity in Taiwanese cinema. But the film has proved to be much less than what was promised by the hype and the festival pedigree (curtain-raiser at Taipei, closing berth at the New York Asian Film Festival). Now best known for Apple of My Eye – both the rite-of-passage romance novel and the film he made out of the book in 2011 – Giddens Ko has somehow offered a watered-down adaptation of the criminal thriller he published in 2004.
The basic framework is still there: A mysterious man inherits a dilapidated tenement in the middle of the city, rents the rooms out to an array of strange characters, spies on them through secret cameras, and finally spins out of control as he intervenes with their routines. The premise does share certain elements with Ira Levin’s pulpy novel Sliver – but sadly the similarities do not stop there. The Sharon Stone-starring adaptation disintegrates because the Joe Eszterhas-penned screenplay truncated the narrative, pared down the immorality of the book’s characters and added an unconvincingly upbeat denouement. The screen version of The Tenants Downstairs, with Ko adapting his book himself, suffers the same ignominy, as it barely manages to establish the personalities and motivations of its characters – a whopping eight of them – within its two-hour running time.
The film kicks off with the nameless Landlord (an over-the-top Simon Yam) seated inside an interrogation room and – perhaps signaling the in-jokes and references to come – telling a detective he knows someone is looking in from behind a mirror “because that’s what it’s like in the movies.” After this, he offers to tell the cop a story “out of your imagination”: Having taken the keys off a dying man in a hospital, the Landlord arrives at the corresponding building to discover a crumbling edifice fitted with a sprawling system of surveillance cameras covering each of the rooms. The next moment, he’s bringing the new tenants in: a divorced salaryman (Yu An-shun) and his young daughter (Angel Ho); a professor (Lee Kang-sheng) and his student-cum-lover (Bernard Sun Jen); a dishevelled nerd (Hou Yan-xi); a suave and promiscuous office executive (Sophia Li); and a muscular but sexually suppressed schoolteacher (Kaiser Chiang).
Following a montage illustrating the tenants’ routines and quirks – undoubtedly the most subtle and sure-handed part of the whole film – the landlord begins his game. Lurching at each individual’s weakness – the singletons’ wayward libidos, the suspicions bubbling between the gay couple, the geek’s belief in the supernatural – the peeping housemaster plays one against each other in a strategy devised to coax out the monstrous desires within each tenant. Only one person seems to be beyond the man’s reach: the mysterious woman in white (Ivy Shao) living on the top floor who pronounces her aim to break out of her deadlocked, ordinary life. Her method? Bringing people to her flat and then torturing them while wearing a translucent raincoat with nothing underneath.
By the time blood flows and heads roll – literally – Tenants has already slipped and slid into the land of caricatures, offering comedy where it shouldn’t. Then again, perhaps Tsuei and Ko knows they would have to tickle the audience a bit so that they won’t tear out the seats during a finale that mixes and matches the key twists to Infernal Affairs/The Departed and Shutter Island, but ends up punching mightily big holes into the plot that goes before.
Production company: Amazing Film Studio
Cast: Simon Yam, Lee Kang-sheng, Ivy Shao, Sophia Li, Kaiser Chuang
Director-producer: Adam Tsuei
Screenwriters: Giddens Ko
Executive producers: Angie Chai, Ho Ping, Liao Chin-feng
Director of photography: Jimmy Yu
Production designer: Itsutsuji Kei
Costume designer: Dora Ng
Editor: Ian Lin
Music: Chris Hou
No MPAA rating, 120 minutes