Dear Tenant: A Crushing Love Letter About Identity and Suffering

Director: Yu Chieh Cheng Starring: Mo Tzu Yi, Chen Shu Fang, Run Yin Bai Runtime: 106mins

Taiwanese director Yu Chieh Cheng is a near veteran when it comes to issues surrounding identity. 2009 saw the release of Yang Yang, a film that probed the complicated journey of a French-Taiwanese woman and how this shaped her interpersonal relationships. More recently in 2015, his co-directed WaWa No Cidal explored the return of a journalist to her now tourist ridden indigenous lands. A common thread that flows throughout these formative projects is Yu’s attempt to pin down frictions that marginalised groups face when attempting to understand and connect with family. In Dear Tenant, Yu continues to display his talents with an agonising but tender swagger.

The circumstances in Dear Tenant are deliberately obscured. What we know is that Lin Jian Yi (Mo Tzu Yi) appears to live with elderly Zhou Xiu Yu (Chen Shu Fang) and young Wang You Yu (Run Yin Bai). It transpires early on that Jian Yi is connected to both Xiu Yu and You Yu through Xiu Yu’s deceased son Wang Li Wei (Yao Chun Yao). While it is intimated that Jian Yi had a thriving romantic relationship with the late Li Wei, there are ever so slight hints that the ailing Xiu Yu harbours some blame for whatever has happened to her son and that the now sombre Jian Yi even appears to reflect a sense of guilt and remorse. Whatever about the specifics of these uncertain events, Jian Yi’s connection to young You Yu resembles some sort of newly found father son relationship. Both Jian Yi and You Yu are having to look out for Xiu Yu, whose health is painfully and fatally deteriorating. As the narrative splits and reveals that the elderly Xiu Yu has passed on, suspicion grows as to the circumstances of her demise and Jian Yi becomes the target of accusations, not least by Xiu Yu’s other son who returns from mainland China and treats Jian Yi with contempt. This contempt, also shared by investigating police officers, is rooted in deeply homophobic reservations surrounding Jian Yi’s relationship with the late matriarch’s family. As events unfold, Jian Yi is forced to make difficult choices while also reflecting on pivotal memories with his late partner.

The choice to do away with a straightforward linear story is an inspired one by director Yu. It is a choice that appears to be driven by a desire for viewers to invest in but also not fully trust several characters. There is a palpable sense of love but also resentment that permeates interactions and dialogue between key family members. This succeeds in eliminating any predictability as to how the significant moments are unfolding and who bears responsibility for them. Narratives interchange to serve important plot points but never with such frequency that it completely muddles the emotional impact of the story. The timelines refrain from switching too often but do so just enough to strike this delicate balance.

While the story switches back and forth between the events that precede and follow two critical moments, there is a consistent endearing harmony that pierces throughout the lean 106-minute running time and this is beautifully maintained by expert shooting and a gut-wrenching score. Cinematographer Meteor Cheung inflects subtle pink and blue filters when needed but also lets the natural scenery do a lot of the work. Both the mountainous and metropolitan aspects of the Taiwanese port city of Keelung are stunningly captured. A disciplined original score by composer Fran Chen dances against the mountainous region in key shots and helps to maintain consistent emotional tones.

What makes Dear Tenant more impressive is that it successfully balances several key themes. While undeniably an LGBTQ+ story at its core, the film tackles hefty subjects such as adoption and euthanasia. While Yu clearly has his own perspective, he poses a lot of difficult questions here without identifying easy answers for all of them. This is unsurprising for a director who is seasoned in the craft of presenting marginalised perspectives with a delicate touch. In earlier work such as WaWa No Cidal, the director was happy to co-direct a film that channelled a Taiwanese Aboriginal perspective. You get the sense that Yu is reticent to portray stories without making active attempts to be fully informed and well versed in the relevant subject matter. However, his work also shows a steadfast refusal to shy away from raising uncomfortable subjects and he clearly wants to bring these topics to the table. This endearing quality shines throughout Dear Tenant and he gets all that he can out of his perfectly casted peers. While child actor Run Yin Bai shows impressive emotional maturity in a challenging role, it is arguably Mo Tzu Yi who stands out as the agonised grandmother. Her physical and emotional pain is palpable, and her visible suffering delivers some of the most crushing scenes you will likely have seen on a cinema screen in recent years. Considering how the entire cast rises to the occasion, the sweeping success of the film at the 57th Golden Horse Awards is perhaps the least surprising aspect of Yu’s latest outing.

Delivering on all fronts, Dear Tenant is an unmissable love letter.

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)
Where to watch Dear Tenant

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