Dear Tenant conceals a straightforward social drama in the trappings of a nonlinear crime film, tackling homophobia and class relations with grace.
We first meet Lin (Morning Tzu-Yi Mo) in handcuffs, on trial for the supposed murder of his late boyfriend’s mother, Mrs. Chou (Shu-Fang Chen). Lin’s story, and the story of Yu Chieh-Cheng’s Dear Tenant, is dramatically introduced but keeps its details hidden. This anxiety over truth and concealment extends back to Lin, whose trial is made worse by the homophobia of the man putting him on trial: the other son of his supposed victim. Throw in a battle between the two men over the custody of Yo-yu (Run-yin Bai), the young heir to the family home, and Dear Tenant reveals itself to be an earnest-to-a-fault social issue drama masquerading as a crime drama.
Chieh-Cheng’s script tackles the weight of Lin’s problems gracefully. This is especially evident in flashbacks between him and his deceased love, Li-Wei (Yao Chun-yao). A simple conversation between the two spirals into questions about hiding as a gay man in a heterosexual relationship, and whisks the two away to a deeply romantic setting high in the mountaintops. This place of peace is beautifully shot, opening the film and only recurring at points where characters seek to transcend the thorniness of life in the city.
Shot in Keelung, Dear Tenant is frequently gorgeous. The mountains are a sight, but the portside city looks wonderful as well. Chieh-Cheng and cinematographer Meteor Chung stick mostly to understated but beautifully colored wide shots when describing the less lurid details of the film. A particular grace note comes early in the film when Lin stands apart from the family he has entangled himself with. While they mourn their losses, he is blocked at a remove, somehow disallowed from participating in grief in the same way. Homophobia is explicit in the script, but moments like this, complicated further by Lin’s continued status as a tenant in the house, mark how a personal interaction can exacerbate larger cultural prejudices.
For all of Dear Tenant’s grace, there is an equal problem with its sense of rhythm. Two lengthy flashbacks tell the majority of the story, a structure that seems at first a means to complement a sense of mystery but continues to drag out a series of very plainspoken incidents. The film’s detailed observations- especially in describing Lin and Yo-Yu’s relationship and routine- are enriching character details, but their existence within the more urgent frame story make them feel padded and unrevealing. It’s easy to imagine the film as a more straightforward, if particularly dour, family drama.
Dear Tenant has an accomplished visual style and treats its subjects with grace, but it can’t quite fit all of its desynchronized pieces back together.
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