Interviews, Taiwan

Adam Tsuei and The Tenants Downstairs stars interview: “All my friends in the industry told me I was crazy!”

We talk to the director and stars of gruesome Taiwanese shocker The Tenants Downstairs

Producer of the hugely popular romantic films, You are the Apple of My Eye and Cafe.Waiting.Love, Adam Tsuei took a totally different project as his directorial debut, adapting Giddens Ko’s The Tenants Downstairs. We were lucky to be able to talk to him and two leading actresses, Ivy Shao (Yingru) and Li Xing (Miss Chen), about this very rare horror crime film that might shock many of its domestic audience.

The film is very different to the kind of films you worked on and produced in the past, like You are the Apple of my Eye or Cafe. Waiting. Love – did you specifically decide to try something new with The Tenants Downstairs?

Adam Tsuei: Yes, indeed and there are three reasons behind it. First of all, for any director, he or she would only make a film on a story he or she really likes. I really liked the story. Secondly, I think there is a lack or even vacuum of similar genre film among Taiwan productions. The only one would be Chen Kuo-fu’s Double Vision, but that was released almost twenty years ago. There are none which combines black humour, fantasy, thrill, suspense, deduction and sex. No film produced has reached so wide a range before. This is also why the original novel was so popular. So the second reason is that I want to make a totally new genre among Chinese language films. The third reason is self-challenge. The challenge is not just on myself but also on my team. As you said, we made You are the Apple of my Eye, and we also produced the first two Tiny Times films in collaboration with Mainland China director Guo Jing-ming. Then two years ago we made Cafe. Waiting. Love. All have achieved great success in box-office and they are all romantic love stories. So now we’d like to make something totally different and see if we can reach the same kind of success.

The writings of Giddens Ko have proved very popular as novels and films, why do you think this is?

Adam Tsuei: I would say Giddens Ko is a character with an open heart. He never turns away from anything or any thoughts, both in his behaviour and his words. Right is right, wrong is wrong. He’s no saint and makes mistakes. Yet he is very brave to put all his thoughts and ideas into words without any covering up. And that’s the most attractive part of his novels, he isn’t concerned that his readers would find him too lewd or disgusting. He would just write his mind. Many of his readers and audience have been telling me that they found him extremely honest and his novels really hit the right spots in their hearts. Like in our film, we showed how everyone had two sides, one out of the door and one inside the door. We all have two faces, one for the public and another one to keep private. It is not about right or wrong. There are things you wouldn’t do, like picking your toes, in front of others. Most people are more relaxed when they are at home. Giddens Ko’s charm lies in the fact he shows them all, with no hiding. It is that honesty and truthfulness that grabs your heart. You feel relieved to see others feel the same as you do.

It’s a very violent and perverse film, though very funny as well in places – how did you approach mixing humour with horror?

Adam Tsuei: The core or foundation of the film is black humour. With that basic tone, there are six rooms with eight tenants and we can put in the elements I mentioned just now like deduction, fantasy, horror and erotica. Since we wanted to present their very different psychology and personality, their outdoor and indoor behaviour, we get to reach so many different genre elements. That is the biggest attractions both in the novel and in the film.

Did you find it very difficult to mix these genre elements?

Adam Tsuei: Yes, it was very hard. When I decided to make the film, all my friends and especially those in film industry were telling me I was crazy. They all knew this was my first feature film and to take on such a challenging story as my debut film, was, to them, totally insane. But I think when a director makes his or her first film, he or she needs to choose a subject that interests him or her most. It is only when you love the story, that you will find your own voice. Then it is my personality to challenge myself all the time. I thought if I could make such a difficult film, the ones in the future would be easy for me. I am lucky to be able to have a wonderful crew and amazing cast, they made the film a big success. The greatest challenge lies in the complexity of the plot. Most films have one leading man and one leading woman, and maybe a third-party to make a triangle, which would make it complex already. Our story has eight tenants and one landlord, nine characters. You need to tell all of their stories in a short span of two hours or so, and you need to tell each one with clarity and senses. In the end, you also need to bring them together into one ending and pass your message to the audience. That is extremely difficult.

The film is reminiscent of some of the classic Hong Kong category III rated films of the 1990s – were they an inspiration?

Adam Tsuei: I can be very honest with you, I wasn’t influenced by Hong Kong films at all. I think you were referring to the films by Wong Jing, and I watched none. I think my film is different. The film has run its preview in Taiwan Film Festival in June. Most of the feedback we received were saying the sex in the film wasn’t erotic at all. That was one of the decision I made before we started filming. I knew there were a lot of sex in the story, but I wanted to make sure it won’t be erotically arousing. The sex was there simply because it was part of the story. I think I’ve achieved my goal from the reviews in Taiwan so far.

Li Xing: I think I might be the best one to answer this question since my character takes most of the sex scenes. I can see what you meant by reminiscent of the Hong Kong category III films. In those films the female characters would act out their sexiness very straightforwardly. Not only in the actual sex scenes, but also in the scenes when they were flirting or seducing the men, they did it very obviously, with no euphemism. When I was interpreting my character, I was very obvious and straightforward as well. I guess that’s why you find the similarities with Hong Kong category III films. But the director did not consciously refer to those.

Adam Tsuei: Let me add more. When we announced the project, we received huge amount of messages from the fans of the novel, asking me to please be faithful to the book. They asked me to film everything and not leave out any details. Therefore, I wanted to achieve a film that would not disappoint the readers and would attract those who haven’t read the book. Most of Chinese films, no matter from Hong Kong, Mainland or Taiwan, tend to be dodging and avoiding the actual action when it comes to sex scenes. The original novel has been so popular because of its great details for everything. I knew the film would not be interesting if I avoid those details and would be disappointing to the readers.

You mentioned just now there aren’t usually many extreme horror or genre films like this from Taiwan, why do you think Taiwan doesn’t produce much in the way of genre cinema, compared to a lot of the other South East Asian countries?

Adam Tsuei: Although there are horror or suspense films in other South East Asian countries, and also in Korea, the films that mix so many elements are rare still. I think it is because of me. I have no burden. This is my first film and I’m not in my 30s or 40s. I’m in my 50s making my debut film. I’ve been in entertainment business long enough as well. I am not worrying about this or that, I just want to make something I really like and make a good movie. As long as I have enough resources, support from the crew, from the cast and enough budget, I would not hold back. I think there should be no compromise in art. And I believe you need to have your own feature in whatever you do. Or you will make a film that seems to have been seen here and there, which is pointless.

How did the cast feel about the film, especially with all the sex, nudity and violence, and since all of them are basically playing perverts, murderers, or very odd characters? For example, Ivy, you played the most evil character in the story. How did you feel about it?

Ivy Shao: Actually I really liked my character when I read the novel. I think she touched the darkest psychic in many people’s hearts. In my mind I probably have killed hundreds of people, but I couldn’t have done that in life. I believe for many people, when you encounter someone you really want to kill, the mental process would be rather peculiar and interesting. Your ethics would be challenged and of course you can’t break the law. So when I learned that I had the opportunity to play this character, I was very excited and intrigued. My character was a very cruel murderer but I envisioned her as a very quiet and cat like woman. The killings were like playing with cockroaches to her, interesting and entertaining. It is even a holy ceremony for her, she felt renewed afterwards. So when I approached the character, I felt like a goddess, may I say (laugh)? I was both a cat and a goddess and I had a lot of room for interpretation between them. It was amazing. There were times the director cautioned to hold back a bit as I looked to be enjoying it too much (laugh).

Adam, you were the CEO of Sony Music in Greater China area. What made you decide to start in film industry?

Adam Tsuei: Yes, I was a very senior employee in Sony Music back then, yet still an employee who worked for others. I wanted to work for myself. I’ve enjoyed a very successful business life and after I reached 50, like one of the Chinese sayings said, it was time to have my own career. Also I felt very unfulfilled working in the music industry. It was a shared feeling throughout the company, no matter if you are senior or junior. As you might know, music companies could never make money from the albums they released and we were losing all the time. Most Chinese songs were downloaded freely online and we could not get our investment back from CD sales. And then I came across You Are the Apple of My Eye and it was a huge success. Taiwan film market was doing well and Mainland market was on a rocket rise. Many of my friends congratulated me on my move saying I did the right thing.

Thank you all for your answers and I wish you great success at the film festival.

All: Thank you very much for your kind wishes.

The Tenants Downstairs screened as the closing film of New York Asian Film Festival 2016 (NYAFF). Read all our reviews and coverage of #NYAFF2016.

Thanks to Emma Griffiths and all the NYAFF team!

About the author

Jingjing XieJingjing Xie Jingjing Xie
Xie Jingjing graduated with a MA degree in English Language and Literature from Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. She is the co-founder of Chinese Visual Festival. Before moving to London in 2009, she worked as the Screening Programmer for the only national Chinese documentary festival, Guangzhou International Documentary Festival, China.More »
Read all posts by Jingjing Xie

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