Cheng Yu-chieh’s Dear Tenant is a deeply layered drama which, on its surface, sees Mr. Lin (Morning Mo), a rooftop tenant who takes care of his elderly landlord, Mrs. Chou (Shufang Chen) and her grandson You-yu (Runyin Bai). When Mrs. Chou passes away, her son, You-yu’s uncle Li-gang (Jack Yao) returns home, distressed to find that the property has been left to the young boy, who has been legally adopted by Lin. As the story moves forward, we learn that Lin and You-yu’s father, Wang Li-Wei (Yao Chun-yao) were a couple, and this is how Lin has really come to enter the family unit.
Beyond this initial premise, Dear Tenant is an elegant and complex film, taking the audience in many directions narratively and emotionally. The cold open, which sees Lin on trial for murder and possession of narcotics, immediately pulls the rug from underneath any viewer thinking they have the film pegged based on plot summaries they may have read. It also brings additional context to the film, adding weight to any warm moments later, intensifying the tragic elements of the story and bringing a looming dread to any scene in which Lin deals with the police investigation surrounding him.
On top of its straightforward dramatic narrative, Dear Tenant deals with themes of homosexuality and gender roles, homophobia, unconventional family dynamics and euthanasia – handling each powerfully, yet with tact, subtlety and understanding.
Yu-chieh and the co-editor, Hsiao-Tong Chen’s (editing alongside the director) structuring of the film is astonishing. The semi-chronological structure, peppered with flashbacks and flashforwards, lets us in on key details regarding the plot. Although these choices are very deliberate, they consistently feel pure and organic, never leaving one feeling as if they are being spoon-fed information.
In addition to informing the plot and structure, these time hops emphasise the emotional core of Dear Tenant, with scenes showing Lin’s future trial adding gripping tension and worry to the chronological story. While flashbacks to Lin and Li-wei’s relationship key us in to both the grief this family are facing, Lin’s dedication to the family, and the intensity of the grief he is living with.
None of these emotional notes would be half as effective, however, if it weren’t for the remarkable performances put to the screen. Every single member of the main cast plays their part to perfection. Yao subtly plays into Li-gang with every beat, teetering on the triple-knife edge of a man who distrusts Lin because he is looking out for his family, even if to a level of paranoia, a man who distrusts Lin because he feels entitled to what he has, and a man who distrusts Lin because of his sexual orientation, whether he’s conscious of this prejudice or not. In flashbacks, Chun-yao perfectly embodies Li-wei’s deep love for Lin, his frustration with the circumstances of his life and his heartbreak when a secret from the past is revealed.
Though, it is the trifecta of Mo, Chen, and Bai which the film really hinges upon; they are perfect here. Mo, as Lin, has a tough role here, running pretty much the full gamut of human emotion, but his performance is wonderfully nuanced and each side of him is portrayed with raw heart-breaking realism and heart-warming tenderness.
The true stars, in my eyes, are Shufang Chen as Mrs. Chou and Runyin Bao as You-yu. Mrs. Chou as a character is built upon hardship and Chen must portray the raw grief, pain, and suffering, both physical and emotional, that it calls for. This is no easy feat, but she knocks it out of the park, while managing to pull off the often near-impossible task of performing a character who themselves is putting on a performance, as she hides her true love for Lin. This fantastic work only makes her eventual revealing of her true feelings even more touching and affecting.
Runyin Bai as You-yu shows prodigious talent here with one of the greatest child performances I’ve seen in a very long time – to the point where it’s almost easy to forget that he is acting – making the struggles You-yu must go through as a young child even more moving. His chemistry with Mo as his surrogate father Lin is also incredible. I would recommend keeping an eye on his career, because having done work like this at just eleven years old, his future is set to produce some profound work.
I’ve left out some key elements of the film’s narrative, but I implore anyone reading this to see the film as soon as they have the opportunity and to go in as blind as they possibly can. Dear Tenant is an elegant, heart-warming and heart-wrenching story about love in all its forms and fragments.