Film Review: Queer Drama ‘Dear Tenant’《親愛的房客》Is a Tear-Jerker Marked by Powerhouse Performances
For the past five years, Jian-yi has been looking after the son, Yo-yu, and the elderly mother, Mrs Chou, of his deceased boyfriend Li-wei. They live together like a family, and it is Lin’s way of remembering Li-wei – by continuing to be in the life he once had and loving the people he once loved. But when Mrs Chou passes away, her other son returns from overseas and discovers that Mrs Chou’s property is passed on to Yo-yu, who as been legally adopted by Lin. Li-gang contacts the police, accusing Lin of killing his mother.
Director: Cheng Yu-Chieh
Cast: Mo Tzu-Yi, Chen Shu-Fang, Bai Run-yin, Yao Chun-Yao, Jay Shih
Language: Mandarin, Taiwanese Hokkien
Runtime: 106 minutes
Multi-Golden Horse Awards winner Dear Tenant《親愛的房客》is a tempestuous drama that questions the very definition of what being a family means. It is a film that is purely driven by emotions but almost to a fault by making several implausible narrative leaps to maximise its resonant weight. Nevertheless, Dear Tenant’s powerhouse performances and remarkable cinematography push these concerns to the wayside, creating a riveting and bittersweet family drama that will wring out tears.
Since Li-wei’s (Yao Chun-yao) death five years ago, Jian-yi (Mo Tzu-Yi) has stuck around to take care of his lover’s ailing mother Hsiu-yu (Chen Shu-fang) and son Yo-yu (Bai Run-yin). The uneasy normalcy is disturbed when the matriarch passes away and Li-wei’s brother (Jay Shih) accuses Jian-yi of murder after finding out that her house is left to his nephew and tenant.
In 2019, Taiwan became the first Asian country to allow same-sex marriages. However, as Dear Tenant astutely shows, legislation is hardly able to erase generations of bigotry. Throughout Jian-yi’s journey to clear his name, the distinction between tolerance and acceptance becomes painfully apparent, both revealed through the surrounding characters’ uneasiness and Jian-yi’s blunt challenges to expose their dormant stigmas.
The latter, however, is rarely the course of action for the reserved Jian-yi. Throughout the film, there is a sense that Jian-yi has long carried the weight of how others have judged him because of his sexuality.
While Jian-yi is a doting adoptive father and caretaker, this exhaustion and passiveness becomes a painful liability when police investigations reveal damning evidence against him. The film prods at its audiences’ suspicions, essentially putting Jian-yi on trial for if his actions and intentions are genuine.
The film, however, is susceptible to melodrama and all-too-convenient inconveniences. The biggest question it may leave audiences is with how Jian-yi is able to adopt Yo-yu when his biological off-screen mother is alive. Jian-yi’s passiveness can also be frustrating and, frankly, unrealistic; the charges against him would bring even the most stoic family man to defend himself.
Yet, this concern is exactly what Dear Tenant looks to address and overcome — and its performances and cinematography is more than equipped to be a convincing rebuttal. Mo and Chen are phenomenal in their roles, for both of which earned them wins at this year’s Golden Horse Awards. Throughout the film, Chen poignantly transforms from a bitter mother pinning his son’s death to the tenant, to a vulnerable, loving and terrified elderly in the final hours of her life.
While seemingly aloof and detached, it is Mo’s nuanced performance that brings out Jian-yi’s complexities. The doting relationship he shares with his adopted son is heartwarming, while moments of weakness flesh out the portrait of a deeply flawed yet loving man.
The film’s crisp and distant cinematography is suitably and sentimentally trapped in the final moments Jian-yi shares with his lover in the wintry peaks of Taiwan’s mountains. Completing its technical high points is a moving piano piece, worked on by Jian-yi and Yo-yu throughout, that is a bonafide tearjerker especially by the film’s end.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Dear Tenant is just a film that addresses LGBT issues. At its core is one man’s infallible depth of love for his deceased lover’s family, even if they are not blood-related. Dear Tenant does occasionally get carried away and lean towards melodrama with the film is at its best when it is as understated and refined as its lead. Nevertheless, it is impossible to escape the breadth of heartfelt emotions found within its performances and heartrending drama even long after leaving the theatre.
Dear Tenant is now playing islandwide in select Golden Village theatres and at The Projector.
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