A deranged apartment block landlord graduates from electronic eavesdropping to playing sick and deadly jokes in “The Tenants Downstairs,” a lusciously photographed and wildly uneven cavalcade of grotesque comedy, torture porn and all-round depravity. Based on the novel by popular Taiwanese author Giddens Ko and starring Hong Kong exploitation mainstay Simon Yam (“Dr. Lamb”) as the malevolent manipulator, this procession of perversity will likely struggle to attract general audiences but does possess cult and remake potential. Festivals seeking glossy gross-outs will get their money’s worth here. “Tenants” commences its lease in Taiwan cinemas on August 12.
“Tenants” marks the directing debut of Adam Tsuei, a former music industry bigwig whose credits as producer include hit adaptations of Ko’s novels “You are the Apple of My Eye” (2010) and “Cafe. Waiting. Love” (2014). The difference between those fluffy romantic comedies and this social horror movie could not be more pronounced.
The major difference between Ko’s novel and his screenplay is the introduction of a conventional interrogation-and-flashback format. Before his dreadful deeds are shown, the unnamed and unrepentant landlord (Yam) tells a police detective (Kai Fung) to prepare for “a story out of your imagination.” That’s about it for traditional narrative. What follows is a parade of increasingly kinky sequences that make good on the landlord’s promise but provide little insight into his background or motives. With no sympathetic characters emerging anywhere else, many viewers will be hard pressed to feel much besides shock as the freak show unfolds.
Ko’s screenplay omits the novel’s description of how the landlord acquired the building and installed surveillance equipment to satisfy his voyeuristic impulses. Here, he’s simply a grungy middle-aged guy who shows up at a decrepit building with a set of keys and finds it already wired up with cameras and monitors. In an unexplained flash, the place is fully renovated and occupied by tenants specifically selected for what the landlord considers to be socially deviant qualities and strong entertainment potential.
The tenants are an interesting bunch. Kuo Li (Lee Kang-shen) and Linghu (Bernard SenJun) are a gay couple attempting to hide their relationship. Divorced gym instructor Chang (Chuang Kai-hsun) is a ball of pent-up rage. Depressed single father Wang (Phil Yan) harbors incestuous desire for his young daughter (Angel Ho). Li Xing is terrific as Miss Chen, an office worker with a high sex drive. Boyan (Yan Sheng-yu) is a video game-addicted student whose only other pastime is onanism.
If there’s a “love interest” here it’s Yingru (Ivy Shao, excellent), a beautiful young woman whose apartment is stacked with ominously heavy suitcases, and whose bathtub contains an unfortunate young man being subjected to the vilest torture. After discovering Yingru’s secret and forming a bond with her, the landlord starts orchestrating events aimed at bringing out the very worst in everyone and pushing them to commit unspeakable acts.
At this point the film goes into overdrive, with mixed results. On the amusing side, the landlord drugs Boyan and moves his naked body all over town, making the geeky guy believe he’s achieved his dream of teleportation. But the tone is overwhelmingly and oppressively sadistic as hapless victims succumb to mental meltdowns and indulge in atrocious behavior including rape, murder, and amateur surgery.
Yam’s full-blooded performance shows yet again why he’s one of Chinese-language cinema’s most dependable portrayers of oddballs and psychos. Supporting performances are spot-on right down the line. Production designer Kei Itsutsuji and cinematographer Jimmy Yu have a field day with the layout and atmosphere inside Yingru’s chamber of horrors, which would be a cover story in the glossy home decor magazine from hell.