Voyeurism is a common theme in genre cinema, and it’s easy to see why; after all, who doesn’t get at least a tad excited about the notion of looking in on the private lives of others without them knowing about it? With his directorial debut, The Tenants Downstairs, former music industry mogul Adam Tsuei takes the theme in a very dark and sinister direction, resulting in a blacker-than-black comedic thriller that will have viewers wondering how much more over the top it can get.
Based on a controversial book by Giddens Ko, who also wrote the screenplay, The Tenants Downstairs focuses on a landlord, played brilliantly by prolific Hong Kong actor Simon Yam, who rents out his apartments to an assortment of people in somewhat dire straits: a divorced P.E. teacher (Cash Chuang Kai-hsun) with a penchant for physicality outside of school; a shut-in college student (Yan Sheng-yu) who the landlord refers to as human waste; a sexually frustrated single father (Yu An-shun) who shares his apartment’s lone bed with his young daughter; the mysterious and ghostly girl (Shao Yu-wei) in white, Yingru; a gay couple (Lee Kang-sheng and Bernard Sen Jun) trying to keep their relationship secret; and a sexy office worker (Li Xing) who comes home with a different man almost every night. Little do they know, though, that the landlord has a room full of monitors where he can watch their lives unfold in their small living spaces. He quickly becomes bored with the banality of their lives and, with the help of a philosophical conversation one morning with Yingru and his master key, he decides to make all of their lives more interesting.
As things escalated, I couldn’t help but feel a certain guilty giddiness at the mischievous things the landlord would do, all leading to an inevitable – and delightfully gory – climax that includes a bit of a twist that astute viewers will see coming from a mile away. Tsuei does the genre justice in his first feature, aided by solid performances from the entire cast and excellent sound design from the award-winning duo of Duu-Chih Tu and Shu-yao Wu (The Assassin). For a film without a clear protagonist, The Tenants Downstairs manages to be darkly funny and entertaining while also being a thought-provoking thriller about human nature and our hidden (subconscious?) desire to play puppet master.