Tuesday, June 22, 2010

NEW TENANT (Hong Kong, 1995)

NEW TENANT (Hong Kong, 1995)
San fong haak (Cantonese)/ Xin fang ke (Mandarin)
“New Neighbor”
Universe Film Productions/Galaxy Films
Directed by Anthony Wong Chau-sang
Produced by Leung Hung-wah
Written by Lau Wing-kin, Leung Hung-wah, Anthony Wong Chau-sang
Cinematography by Tsang Chun-chung
Art Direction by Danny Yuen
Music by Raymond Wong Ying-wah
Anthony Wong Chau-sang
Dolphin Chan Hoi-hang
Lawrence Ng Kai-wah
Dayo Wong Chi-wah
Parkman Wong Pak-man
Yip Wing-cho

With stomping Canto-metal blasting away on the soundtrack, the movie begins with actor/director Anthony Wong getting a haircut from UNTOLD STORY director Herman Yau made up like Paul Stanley from Kiss. It just gets weirder from there. It’s 1994 in Hong Kong and Wong is being discharged from a mental hospital. He claims he can no longer remember why he was originally admitted and therefore must be fully recovered. His doctor approves and, seemingly a bit of a Jesus freak, prays with him, and seems more mentally unstable than Wong does. Out on his own, our hero rents a flat in a building scheduled to be condemned in three months. Although he is the only current tenant he occasionally sees neighbors going in and out, only to later find their respective apartments empty, apparently for years. On his first night, he dreams (or does he?!?) that his face has become grotesquely disfigured and his hands have begun to stigmata. Rushing in a panic out his front door, he is confronted with the oppressive image of the hospital again, beckoning him to return. The following day, while sitting down to defecate, he is intruded upon by a rotund, mustachioed gentleman who, unable to see Wong already using the facilities, promptly whips it out and starts pissing directly on him. Blessedly, he disappears, but Wong is understandably upset and confused by this odd plot twist. Rushing into his living room he is astonished to find several people having a get-together in his apartment. They can neither see nor hear him. Anthony Wong, unsurprisingly, freaks out. These flashes continue and eventually he finds that one member of the household can at least hear him, a cute teenager improbably named Dolphin (also improbably the name of the actress playing the part and Wong’s girlfriend at the time). While in her room he happens to notice a calendar on the wall. He has suddenly found himself in 1984. Anthony Wong has become unstuck in time.

This brings us to the second act of the film, wherein Wong and Dolphin became acquainted and even sort of romantically involved. But soon enough the sinister strains of the first act begin to creep back in. Dolphin’s sister Whale (no really, that’s her name) goes missing soon after becoming engaged to the odd duck Anthropologist who lives downstairs (played by ubiquitous Category III leading man Lawrence Ng). Dolphin suspects that he has done something unspeakable to her, but really only because he makes weird noised at night that she hears through the ancient piping in their building. Dolphin and Wong sneak into his apartment one night to investigate and spy him opening a brief case and carefully inspect a mutilated canine inside. Convinced of his culpability, Wong checks in on the nutty professor back in 1994. He audits a class of his on the anthropology of human sacrifice. He speaks with unreserved passion about the cannibalization of loved ones in some “savage” societies, proclaiming the act to be the ultimate in intimacy. Confronting him afterwards the creep confesses to ritual murder and cannibalism of Whale and gives him a knowing look, perhaps somehow aware of Wong’s cross-time continuity. NEW TENANT spirals down from here into its unabashedly weird and incoherent climax. I don’t want to reveal too much, but I will tell you this about the end of the movie: It makes no fucking sense whatsoever.

Which is OK with me, really. This is a most unusual HK flick to be sure. There aren’t many pulp films from the former British colony that are so damned confounding, save perhaps for Wong Kar-wai’s ASHES OF TIME, although NEW TENANT is nowhere near in the league of that masterpiece. There’s an odd, unsettling tone to parts of the film that are genuinely creepy as well as hints that there is something more complex going on in the narrative, although it never really leads anywhere. I suppose there is something here about the anxiety over the ’97 handover to mainland China, but that’s not all that clear to me. Despite these failures in plot and theme, NEW TENANT is compulsively watchable and fairly bewitching. It’s a unique beast for its time and place, with an arty and austere mood, blanketed with a dissonant unease that rubs against the grain of the more commonplace commercial HK fare. It also features one of the oddest soundtracks I’ve ever heard, with the aforementioned metal opening, a bizarre assortment of what sounds like Russian folk songs and one of the most improperly scored love scenes in recent memory. As Wong and Dolphin are finally able to see and feel each other and therefore get it on, a tinny, jaunty Casio keyboard ragtime ditty tinkles merrily and mysteriously in the background. Many scenes are attractively eerie, and the narrative confusion adds to the incipient mystery of the production, adding a layer of pleasing weirdness even as the story stumbles. But just as often jarring bathroom humor and a sappy romantic streak undercuts this uncanny ambiance, reminding you that no matter how weird it may be, this is still ostensibly a mainstream Hong Kong pop cinema artifact. NEW TENANT never really finds the correct balance for these disparate strains. Still, it’s well worth the effort to track it down.

Acclaimed character actor Anthony Wong is the complete auteur of NEW TENANT. As star, co-writer, and director, Wong is responsible for both its successes and failures. According to an article by Lisa Odham Stokes and Michael Hoover in the Fear Without Frontiers book he also contributed music to the film, but I can find no other references to this credit. Perhaps he is composer of the metal theme at the start of the picture? Born in 1961 to a Chinese mother and an absentee gweilo father, Wong grew up an outsider and this perspective has informed his work throughout his long career. He has starred in upwards of 160 films, many of them as unrepentant heavies in horror flicks and gangster movies. He is perhaps the former colony’s best actor of such roles, always almost scarily believable as he chews up the scenery and occasionally the other actors. NEW TENANT was his debut as writer and director with only one other film, TOP BANNANA CLUB, a romantic comedy of all things, in that capacity. NEW TENANT was made for pennies sometime in 1994/95, and took some time to actually be released. As befuddling as this film is to a western audience, the average HK ticket-buyer must have been even more confounded by the ambiguous plot. Ambiguity not being a common attribute of 80s/90s commercial films, it is not surprising that TENANT struggled to find an audience. It is reputed to be one of the lowest grossing movies made during that decade. It has even struggled to find a recent cult fan base in the west, despite the exploito fame of Wong, star of underground faves EBOLA SYNDROME and EROTIC GHOST STORY 2. Despite its many faults it deserves a wider audience than it has thus far received.

Texts consultated for this review:

Charles, John, The Hong Kong Filmography 1977-1997, McFarland & Co., 2000

Stokes, Lisa Odham and Hoover, Michael, "Enfant Terrible: the Terrible, Wonderful World of Anthony Wong", Fear Without Frontiers, FAB Press, 2003

Dannen, Fredric and Long, Barry, Hong Kong Babylon: An Insider's Guide to the Hollywood of the East, Hyperion/Miramax Books, 1997


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