Dear Tenant (親愛的房客, Cheng Yu-Chieh, 2020)

Taiwan introduced marriage equality in 2019 and is often regarded as the most liberal of Asian nations but that does not necessarily mean that it’s free of prejudice or homophobia whether internalised or otherwise. Cheng Yu-Chieh’s melancholy family drama Dear Tenant (親愛的房客, Qīn’ài de Fángkè) begins in fog, mirroring it seems the hero’s sense of numb confusion consumed as he is with guilt and grief but also perhaps reflecting the miasma of his life in which he is forced to remain silent, prevented from fully expressing himself by a persistent sense of shame and anxiety. 

Chien-yi (Mo Tzu-yi) has been caring for his mother-in-law Mrs. Chou (Chen Shu-fang) and Yo-yu (Bai Run-yin), the son of his late partner Li-wei (Yao Chun-yao), for the past five years, but is described by them merely as a “tenant”, a lodger occupying the upstairs annex not really part of the family. His liminal status is fully brought home during the New Year dinner which he cooks and serves but, as Li-Wei’s brother Li-gang (Jay Shih) has decided to make a rare visit home from an extended stay in China, later excuses himself from as if he were the help not entitled to sit at the family table. Mrs. Chou, meanwhile, grumpily invites him to stay low-key resentful of Li-gang suspecting he’s only come to ask for more money, suspicions which are deepened after he starts talking about retirement apartments. When Mrs. Chou passes away suddenly a few months later Li-gang returns again and is both annoyed to learn that Chien-yi has already adopted Yo-yu and distressed to realise that his mother put the house in Yo-yu’s name which means he’s not getting the inheritance he assumed would be his. Consequently, he accuses Chien-yi of killing his mother to get his hands on the house, a series of events complicated by the autopsy report which suggests Mrs Chou’s death may have been hastened by over medication. 

A shy and reticent man, Chien-yi perhaps has reasons for his silence and his reluctance to speak openly with the police, who are needlessly aggressive and belligerent in their treatment of him, is easily understandable. Questioned by the relatively sympathetic prosecutor he is pressed about his “relationship” with the family and remains somewhat coy, later explaining that Mrs Chou had asked him not to tell Yo-yu that he and his father were lovers continuing to refer to him only as her “tenant” even as he took care of the household. The prosecutor asks him why he didn’t leave after his lover died, a question Chien-yi rightly feels to be absurd asking her if she’d ask the same question of a woman who stayed to look after her husband’s family after her husband died. Of course she wouldn’t, it would be ridiculous and insensitive.

It’s impossible to escape the sense that Chien-yi falls under greater suspicion solely because of his sexuality, the lead police officer quite clearly getting a bee in his bonnet about this particular case. They find him evasive and uncooperative, insensitive to the reasons he may have not to trust them that are later justified by their treatment of him as they again make moral judgements about his use of a dating app they likely would not make if he were picking up women though they might perhaps make of a woman in the same situation. Incongruously hanging out in a gay bar they hassle a former hookup who happens to be a drug user, blackmailing him into incriminating Chien-yi while Li-gang has Yo-yu taken to a psychiatrist in the suggestion that he may have been abused, explaining that he doesn’t want him raised in an “abnormal” environment. Chien-yi finds himself in handcuffs less for the alleged crime than for being a “suspicious” person who must surely be guilty of something even if it’s only his existence. 

It doesn’t seem to matter that Chien-yi tenderly cared for Mrs Chou even while she rejected him, angrily sniping that no matter how good he is to her it won’t bring her son back, or that he’s the only father the nine-year-old Yo-yu has ever really known having lost Li-wei when he was only four, he is condemned for his silence and his “secrets” ostracised by the previously warm parents at the piano school where he teaches after being outed by the insensitive police investigation. Consumed by grief and guilt he does his best to care for Li-wei’s family in his place, but is continually othered by a society which recognises him only as a “tenant” denying him his rightful place as bereaved spouse and step-father. As the melancholy ending perhaps implies, justice and equality are still very much works in progress even a rapidly liberalising society. 


Dear Tenant streams California until May 2 as part of San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Wild Sparrow (野雀之詩, Shih Li, 2019)

“Sparrows are wild birds so they keep hitting against the cage” the introspective hero of Shih Li’s Wild Sparrow (野雀之詩, Yě Què Zhī Shī) is told while perhaps witnessing the same effect in his own life as his flighty mother tries but repeatedly fails to break free of the various forces which constrain her. Young Han’s mother is, in some ways, an embodiment of a destructive modernity, wandering into his rural paradise and then eventually dragging him away from it towards the dubious promise of the city where birds meant to fly free flutter against the bars but rarely find escape. 

Han (Kao Yu-hsia) has been living with his great-grandmother deep in the Taiwanese mountains, but as much as she loves him she’s getting old and, owing to rural depopulation, the local school is set to close the following term so all things considered it’s best if he goes to live with his mother, Li (Lee Yi-chieh), in the city. Questioned by the neighbourhood ladies, however, Han doesn’t want to go. After all, he doesn’t really know his mother all that well. She rarely visits, and in any case she doesn’t seem terribly keen to have him. While out walking one day he hears the frantic squawking of birds caught in a net, taken away by a mysterious man. Finding a sparrow injured on the ground he takes it home and attempts to nurse it back to health, but shortly after his mother’s visit the bird passes away. He takes it into the forest in a shoebox and builds it a cairn, gazing at the birds flying free above the canopy.  

Han asks his great-grandmother why someone would capture wild birds, but she simply tells him not to. The birds are the guards of the gods of the land, sent out to hunt demons that force people to eat dirt, she explains. At the marketplace where his great-grandmother sells her bamboo, Han comes across a man selling caged birds for the purpose of being set free as part of a Buddhist ritual, Han’s face contorting in confusion as he ponders the irony. In the city all he ever sees are birds in cages, much as he perhaps feels himself to be taken out of his natural environment and imprisoned in the urban landscape where his mother alternates between neediness and resentment, so obviously ill-equipped to care for a soon-to-be teenage son while continually conflicted in the contradictions of her life. 

When Han first arrrives, Li makes a point of introducing him to her current boyfriend, Kun, wealthy and much older than her though kind to Han if slightly patronising in his gift of a remote control car for which he is probably a little old and in any case not much interested. A thoroughly rural boy, Han is also mystified by the upscale restaurant they take him to where he is embarrassed to admit he has no idea how to eat the steak that’s been ordered for him. While Li entertains fantasies of marriage, we realise that Kun seems to already have a family and as much as he makes the effort with Han Li is not much of an escape from his domestic responsibilities if she’s also hoping he’ll be a father to her son. Li returns to her life as a bar hostess, often leaving Han home alone and returning late drunk to resentfully yell at him that perhaps her life would have turned out differently if he were not around. She becomes involved with various dangerous men, eventually pushed into sex work by a violent boyfriend who stalked her while working at the club. Han finds himself witnessing his mother with her lovers as she disregards his presence, seeking temporary escape in the arms men while he can only lock himself inside his room, cowering on his bed framed behind bars like a bird resigned to the cage.  

Yet on his return to his mountain paradise he’s distressed to realise the body of the sparrow he buried is no longer in the cairn, comforted only by his grandmother’s assertion that it has already returned to the sky. Death is nothing to be afraid of she tells him, for the dead will always protect the living. Gaining a lesson in life, death, and transience, Han remains imprisoned, framed within the window of his grandmother’s cottage as he watches a soul free itself and return to its natural home, but retains his wildness in his own compassionate desire for freedom, fluttering against the bars if not yet able to escape.


Wild Sparrow streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Images: © Dot Connect Studio Ltd.