A Family Not His Own

Nominated for one of the five best films at this year’s Golden Horse Award, Dear Tenant is a poignant story of familial strain and societal discrimination, made worse by ethical predicament and moral dilemma. There is also the moving performance of the winner for best actor, Mo Tzu-yi

The (still) unconventional family in Dear Tenant. Photo: Filmosa Production/Golden Village Pictures

Before watching Dear Tenant (亲爱的房客), we knew Mark Lee was not going to win the best actor at this year’s Golden Horse Award. After watching the Taiwanese film, we knew exactly why. The movie’s lead Mo Tzu-yi (莫子仪) showed the one thing he could do as actor, and do well: act. Mark Lee, in contrast, was playing Mark Lee; a product of Mediacorp Studios, the eternal pupil of his director pal, Jack Neo. His film Number 1 was awarded the Best Costume prize in what could be a stroke of luck. These two movies, although broach hitherto difficult to express LGBTQ issues, are as different as it is from L to Q or, more specifically, between G and T. Mr Mo’s performance is natural and nuanced, Mr Lee’s one-track and over-the-top. One could tug at heartstrings, the other not.

Despair courses through Dear Tenant like blood in the body, and Mo Tzu-yi’s barely-ever-breaking-a-smile performance belies his character’s quiet suffering. This is not really a dark film, but neither is it dappled with sunshine. For five years, Mr Mo’s Lin Jianyi (林健一), the tenant, takes care of a family of two persons vastly different in age. One is a diabetes-stricken geriatric, the other a fatherless nine-year-old boy. Both are left behind by Lin Jianyi’s lover, the child’s dad, who died during a trekking trip. It isn’t clear what drives the tenant to take on the role of father and caretaker: remorse or responsibility, or both. He goes about his duties almost stoically, teaching his young charge piano and helping with school work and cooking for the elderly woman—played by Chen Shu-fang (陳淑芳) who won the best supporting actress award—and changing the bandage of her unpleasant wound that is likely caused by peripheral artery disease. He himself appears to have no life of his own, except the odd hook-up established through dating apps.

As if Li Jianyi’s circumstances are not heartrending enough, tragedy strikes. He ends up in jail, goes before a public prosecutor and from there, the not-quite-courtroom-drama narrative through flashbacks fills in the blanks of the revelation till that point. The love story of the two men are recounted, the events that led to Li Jianyi’s incarceration are told, but the protagonist’s own background are blocked out. While his pain of loss is understandable, whatever is recalled is not done with burning intensity. The no-rush pacing of the film sometimes feels like it is not going to move further. But perhaps therein lies the appeal of the story: its seeming ordinariness. This is a pingfan (平凡, ordinary) man, living in a too pingfan port area of Kaoshiong (even his deceased lover was a port worker), facing just-as-pingfan homophobia across society and the police force. The prejudices, while not overt (this is modern-day Taiwan, where same-sex marriage is now legal), simmers and the palpability makes it more disquieting.

“If today I were a woman, and my husband died, and I continue to care for his family, would you be asking me the same questions? (如果我今天是个女生,我的先生过世了,我继续照顾他们家,你还会问我一样的问题吗?)” This was asked in a courtroom scene, but Li Jianyi did not do so for pity; he only wanted to know why, he, a pingfan man, would be treated differently. Mo Tzu-yi plays it all with understated control, a bloke’s restraint, to the point that when the tears do come, it feels real and shoots straight for the heart. Director Cheng Yu-chieh (郑有杰) has created a gay-themed movie without any flailing-arm hyperbole. The scenes of the two men up in the mountains may recall 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, yet in its own subtler way, they suggest that homosexual love can stand just as tall. Above all, the dear tenant shows that even a gay man can be a family man and, when duty calls, a father.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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