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)

The Village of No Return (健忘村, Chen Yu-hsun, 2017)

健忘村_畫報風篇_RED_OK_VWouldn’t it be wonderful to just forget all the terrible/embarrassing things that have ever happened to you and live in a paradise of blissful ignorance? To put it bluntly, this is an experiment with historical precedent and one which has never yet worked out for the best. Absurd Taiwanese comedy Village of No Return (健忘村, Jiànwàng Cūn) is both a raucous life in the village comedy and subtle satire on the roots of tyranny, cults of personality, fake news and the evils of the art of forgetting that ultimately turns into a defence of the benevolent dictator.

Somewhere around 1914, the early years of the Chinese Republic, an ambitious warlord (Eric Tsang) has his sights set on capturing Desire Village which, he has been assured by a fortune teller, contains numerous treasures and will make him a king. Unfortunately, his village mole is the unscrupulous Big Pie (Ban Zan) who treks home with carrier pigeons he’s supposed to send back with the message “wait”, “come”, or “don’t come” only Big Pie can’t read. None of that really matters in the end because Big Pie is shortly to die in mysterious circumstances just as a mysterious monk, Fortune Tien (Wang Qianyuan), rocks up with a strange “Worry Ridder” device he claims can permanently ease anxieties.

The main drama revolves around melancholy village girl, Autumn (Shu Qi), who was married off to the ugly and abusive Big Pie against her will. Still pining for the son of the village leader, Dean (Tony Yang), who went off to become an official but has become displaced during the Revolution, Autumn has spent her life literally shackled to the stove and has begun to dwell on death as an antidote to the hopelessness of realising Dean is probably not coming back. Autumn is, however, the last to hold out against the lure of the Worry Ridder, reluctant to give up the memory of Dean no matter how painful it may continue to be.

Fortune Tien is nothing if not persuasive. Little by little he sells the virtues of his machine and quickly has the villagers eating out of his hand. Before long he’s erased the memories of life before he came and installed himself as village chief, presiding over a collection of beatific zombies content to do the literal spade work while Fortune Tien reigns supreme with an easy answer for everything. The parallels are obvious, even if Tien’s case is more extreme. History is rewritten, anyone who remembers differently has a faulty memory or is, perhaps, mad. Only Tien can be relied upon to arbitrate the truth of his false revolution.

The Worry Ridder itself is a fabulously designed piece of anachronistic technology, displaying memories like silent movies with scratchy sound and operated by a modern user interface complete with kitschy animation. Its evils can only be undone with the long lost “Soul Restorer” and its overuse seems to lead to an advanced senility. Though it does indeed erase memories and offer a kind of drugged up serenity, the machine cannot undo the underlying emotions and so those lingering feelings of love or attraction, misplaced or otherwise, remain even without the reasons for their existence. Love is the force which saves the day as Autumn, temporarily saved from her hellish life as the wife of Big Pie after becoming the “First Flower” of Tien’s dictatorial regime, continues to dream of her former love leading her to question Tien’s all powerful grip on the accepted truth.   

Meanwhile outside the village other threats are looming. Prior to their own revolution, the villagers had been excited to learn of the coming railways, mistakenly believing that randomly building an unconnected station (which is like a farm for trains!) would make them rich. The nefarious gangster quickly gets forgotten but he seems evil enough seeing as he’s flying kites made out the skins of his murder victims, though his biggest allies – the Cloud Clan, are led by a portly postmistress (Lin Mei-hsiu) to whom he presents an “iron horse” (i.e. a bicycle) which proves a surprisingly difficult challenge for her to master. The Cloud Clan’s main weapon is their sweet sound, beatboxing a background melody for the surprisingly beautiful voice of the postmistress often heard just before she whips out her giant machete and dispatches her foes with ruthless efficiency. An absurd satire on the ease with which tyranny makes use of human failings, Village of no Return ultimately wonders if blissful mindlessness is really all that bad if all your needs are met and you can count yourself “safe” and “happy”. A good question at the best of times, but one that seems oddly urgent.


Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video in UK & US.

International trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)