Dear Tenant

A man struggles against an unforgiving system and closed-minded family in Cheng Yu-chieh’s drama.

“Don’t be too good to me.”

It’s never easy to move into a new family. Moving in with people who have their own rhythms, baggage, and who are most definitely still grieving, is hard and unforgiving at first. Step-parents throughout the ages have been dealing with the fallout from fairy tales and movies all telling us that, if you’re not the biological parent, you’re probably evil in some capacity, and there’s always one distant bitter family member who thinks you’re in it for the money. It’s hard to feel accepted into a new family, but for Lin Jian-yi (Mo Tzu-yi), whose sexuality is still the topic of much debate in Taiwan, it’s even harder.

Lin has been the tenant of the elderly Zhou (Chen Shu-fang) and her grandson Yo-yu (Runyin Bai) for some years, and has been looking after them as if they were his own family. Yo-yu’s father Li-wei (Yao Chun-yao) died five years prior, while he was in a relationship with Lin, and since then Yo-yu has seen Lin as something of a foster father, though Zhou still holds resentment to Lin for both his sexuality and her son’s death. Nevertheless, after the landlady’s passing, Lin adopts Yo-yu as his own, but when Li-wei’s brother Li-gang (Jay Shih) returns from abroad, he suspects foul play from Lin after discovering that Yo-yu is the inheritor of his grandmother’s house.

What follows is a legal and personal nightmare for Lin. His work and private lives are put under intense scrutiny, and everything – including the events leading up to Zhou and li-wei’s death – begins to unravel. Dear Tenant is a powerful film that has a lot to say about a lot of topics; director Cheng yu-chieh felt compelled to create it after gay marriage was legalised in Taiwan in 2018, to much controversy. The bias felt by many LGBTQ members in many aspects of their lives (even when companies insist there is none) is stronger than ever here, represented by an ignorant and highly unlikeable uncle, as well as an inherently unjust system.

Dear Tenant tries to balance a lot of different themes at once: loss, coping, discrimination, love and the concepts of a non-traditional family. However, the movie always particularly adept at multitasking between or juggling all of these ideas and so when it starts to focus on one aspect – be it the flashbacks featuring Lin’s deceased lover, or the present-day scenes of his trial – the other parts of the story get somewhat pushed to the back and forgotten about. Often, Dear Tenant feels like two or three films trying to speak at once, and this gets jarring, despite how compelling the individual pieces are.

That said, it’s a minor gripe considering how they all play in telling the larger, overall story. I appreciated the tonal shifts more than expected, and found the mystery angle quite novel in what could have been something a bit more straightforward (and potentially more boring). Every time the truth appears to be evident, the puzzle shifts slightly, and offers a different point of view. Not that it’s a major part of the story – there’s no Knives Out hidden in the middle of this drama – but it offers a bit of a respite from the more tragic elements of the movie.

At its heart is Lin, whose on-screen charisma carries the movie. The scenes between him and Yo-yu are sweet and realistic, as are the flashbacks he shares with Li-wei. The film hinges on whether or not the audience will buy just how much he loves this family, and Mo Tzu-yi delivers on all fronts offering a subtle but realistic performance of someone who’s trying their best to look after the ones they love while fighting a culture apparently hell-bent on making him fail.

Cheng’s movie is a very good representation of how a system designed to help people can end up doing the exact opposite once predisposed ideas and discrimination come into play. Lin, once established as homosexual to the prosecutors, is asked probing questions no other parent would, and is seen as a terrible sexual deviant for daring to have a dating app on his phone. He goes from being a beloved piano teacher and family friend to a potential murderer who can’t be trusted with kids because of this intrinsic distrust in his sexuality. And while it’s ultimately hopeful, even its ending is somewhat bittersweet. Dear Tenant, in that regard, sums up perfectly how director Cheng sees the current state of LGBTQ rights in Taiwan, but as we see in little Yo-yu, clearer heads (and the younger generation) will eventually prevail.  

Verdict: Frustrating both inadvertently and on purpose, Dear Tenant is a compelling, sometimes messy, but always emotionally affecting piece of queer cinema that everyone should check out.

Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Violence: 0/10
Sex: 3/10
Post-sex: Of course Lin cries
Dry eyes in the house: Very few
Official post-adoption title: Dad Mark II is quite nice

Dear Tenant (2020
Also known as: 親愛的房客
Mandarin, Taiwanese Hokkien

Writer: Cheng Yu-chieh
Director: Cheng Yu-chieh

CAST

Mo Tzu-yi – Lin Jian-yi
Chen Shu-fang – Zhou Xiu-yu
Runyin Bai – Wang You-yu
Yao Chun-yao – Wang Li-wei
Jay Shih – Wang Li-gang

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