Dear Tenant (R21)
Starring Mo Tzu-Yi, Chen Shu-Fang, Pai Run-Yin, Jay Shih
Directed by Cheng Yu-Chieh
Taiwanese actor Mo Tzu-Yi (Canopy, Artemisia) won the Best Actor trophy for this film at the recent Golden Horse Awards beating out Number 1's Mark Lee among others, and it's easy to see why.
Mo practically carries this superb, slow-burning but moving Taiwanese tearjerker about unconditional love and uncontrollable circumstances entirely on his shoulders in a greatly restrained, sensitive and highly nuanced role.
And, boy, these are heavy shoulders here because he has got to be playing the most self-sacrificing, unappreciated and misunderstood character who's been accused of murder seen in any recent movie.
He is Lin Chien-Yi, a loving, overly giving gay man who lives with a cantankerous old woman, Mrs Chou (veteran actress Chen Shu-Fang won Best Supporting Actress herself), and her nine-year-old grandson, Yo-Yu (Pai Run-Yin), in an apartment overlooking the unforgiving, working-class port of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan.
Ostensibly, he’s a tenant. But in spirit, he's more like a daughter-in-law.
Yep, this is a simple story concealing a more complex role-reversal underbelly because Chien-Yi was the dedicated boyfriend and lover of Chou's deceased son, Li-Wei. And for five years after the latter's passing, he hangs around the home in Unhappy Together doing thankless, selfless chores which are more expected of a dutiful, long-suffering daughter-in-law. Somehow, the unrelated dude feels responsible for looking after his late partner's family.
A palpable air of Asian inscrutability lingers as the story unfolds with a whole slew of questions right at the start about why people are behaving so uncommonly this way here. Which is something the audience will find out as this flick reveals its secrets in a sequence of “Oh, I see” flashbacks that bring us closer and closer to the truth.
Things are, of course, not what they seem straightaway. It's all done in a very Taiwanese-drama style whereby scenes don't stick around for immediate resolution until everything is piled on right at the end.
Anyway, the guy cooks for the family, takes care of the kid, sends him to school every day, and this is the kicker — he dresses a horribly decaying wound on the leg of the severely diabetic Chou who, while he's helping her, scolds and blames him for the death of her son. “Whatever you do, it won't bring my son back,” she spits with ungrateful venom literally a foot away.
At which point, you'll wanna either scream at the meanie granny or pack up and leave. Me? I'd do the latter since I'm no super-tolerant sponge when it comes to really nasty insults hurled right to my face.
Chien-Yi keeps all the pain and grief bottled up quietly inside with unreal patience alongside his closeted homosexuality — known only to the family — while loving the boy, Yo-Yu, excessively to a fault as though he's his own son. The kid is the child of the late Li-Wei and his ex-wife despite the hubby being secretly gay.
One drawback in this story is that it doesn't establish where the missing mother is in this strange arrangement. I mean, exactly how bad a parent was she? Another misstep is when writer-director Cheng Yu-Chieh tries to shed some light onto the relationship between the two gay guys in an unlikely incident-packed hiking scene on the freezing Kaohsiung mountains which turns out to be more clumsy than realistic.
Dear Tenant skirts around these burning matters by basically sidestepping its novel same-sex idea too easily and conveniently by focusing almost singularly on its central noble subject as it makes Chien-Yi too much of a near-perfect saint here.
By the way, Taiwan is actually pretty progressive in its handling of controversial social issues by allowing same-sex marriages and even their ensuing child adoptions in 2019. Although, right on the conservative, traditionally-minded ground level of everyday life in a grimy, parochial city as depicted in this tale, abject discrimination and outright hostility still rule.
After Mrs Chou inexplicably dies, her other straighter, less enlightened and hence lousier son, Li-Gang (Killer Not Stupid’s Jay Shih), suspects that Chien-Yi has poisoned his mother and is plotting to steal the apartment for himself by adopting Yo-Yu to whom the property has been passed down.
Suddenly, everything collapses around the innocent man as he turns overnight from a great dad to a very suspicious villain who has been presumed, due to his inevitable outing as an “abnormal” person, to be surely guilty. Except for the boy who's kinda also pictured conveniently as too wise beyond his years — man, this kid, I swear, will grow up to be a great relationship counsellor in the way he understands and embraces his unusual foster dad — basically everyone here pre-judges Chien-Yi with self-righteous prejudice.
He loses his job as a piano teacher — Chien-Yi emo-bonds with Yo-Yu as he teaches him to play a sweetly wistful tune on their piano at home — when the same parents who praise him for tutoring their children now shun him.
Meanwhile, the cops hound, detain and harass the fella with ruthless efficiency as they view his gay lifestyle with unhidden contempt. “You adopt a kid, yet you meet up with random men. That's not a good look,” the stern lead detective threatens Chien-Yi as the evidence mounts against him. Now, this police-intimidation part of the flick looks almost Korean. Except, I tell you, the Koreans are usually more interested in straight crime than un-straight love in their tough urban dramas.
It is to director Cheng's credit that he has fashioned a totally compelling story by bringing a common realism to an uncommon theme. It's a realism further enhanced by Cheng making his otherwise wholesome do-gooder here as being still a basic human person with believable, less savoury urges.
While Chien-Yi looks after Yo-Yu with great love and tenderness, he also engages in furtive, rough gay sex with a sleazy drug dealer who has a fateful part to play in the tale.
It is a double life of repressed, conflicting feelings which award-winner marvellous Mo — emoting in great chemistry with the very good young Pai —handles with considerable dexterity. His melancholic gay man maintains a distinct heroic masculinity even as he takes over the role of being both a father and a mother.
“I might not be able to protect you from now on,” the father calmly tells the son he has brought up to be an admirably strong young man when the law and the mist of inevitability close in atop the said cold and lonely mountains. Mo’s finely-balanced acting skill stops this scene and the entire movie from turning into melodrama.
In Dear Tenant, it's a tearjerker moment that's strangely both inexorably sad but somehow paradoxically hopeful. (***1/2)
Photo: Clover Films