The 82 Tenants (1982)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-10-01
Anyone who has lived in a city with a continually hot property market—New York City, Hong Kong, London—knows that real estate is a very serious business, a business where fortunes can be made and lost. And while the incomprehensible sums of money are changing hands in boardrooms people with no voice in the matter may lose their homes, a weighty and momentous situation for anyone. So it clearly is ripe for laughs. Our problems might be tragic but those of others can be hilarious.

In “82 Tenants” the widow Zhang and Bing, her new young consort, want to sell an apartment house to a property developer but old man Zhang's will provided that the current tenants can stay there as long as they want or the building survives. So it is clear who the villains are—joining the greedy couple is Chao who has purchased all the land around the building but needs this final piece so he can know everything down and build a money spinning edifice. One the other side are the tenants, a disparate group whose grudgingly and occasionally antagonistically shared communal life, while not ideal, is certainly better than not having a place to live.

There are too many tenants for the audience to get to know any of them very well which is probably what the filmmakers wanted. They are a real cross-section of working class and petit-bourgeois life in Hong Kong—a butcher, a lawyer, a cab driver, a bar hostess—the only thing they have in common is where they live and their need to stay put. The residents have a lot wrong with them—for example when the landlords cut power to the building one night, half a dozen men, using the cover of the sudden darkness, show up in the room of two sisters imploring them for sex. They are not a very cooperative lot on some things—the little things that make up daily life, such as sweeping one’s trash into a neighbor’s living space—but are able to unite in the face of being dispossessed. Their prickly partisanship is shown during one evening when all the women decide to go the movies, leaving all he men at home. Only the almost ready to deliver Xiao Hong is left at home. Her baby decides to arrive just then, of course, and her husband Johnny, very well played by Lo Meng, realizes that he can’t take her to the hospital for the birth since she is from the Mainland in Hong Kong illegally. The infant is delivered right there with encouragement and uncertain assistance of some of the men, all of whom share in Johnny’s pride at his new son. This boy will have dozens of godfathers and uncles.

The couple’s immigration status and that their child will essentially be a stateless person, officially someone who doesn’t exist, is reported to the evil landlords who use the threat of having Xiao Hong deported to force the tenants to sign away their rights. Having established the depravity of the owners and the essential goodness of the residents, the filmmakers spend the rest of the movie in a number of gags. The labored gimmick of having a third party overhear a discussion and come to the wrong conclusion is dusted off and used—in this case a rich man suspects his wife of having an affair. He has planted a microphone on her which winds up with some of the tenants who have broken into Chao’s office to loot his safe and get the agreement. Thinking he is listening to his wife’s assignation he hears the break-in committee arguing with each other over whose tool is strongest and best suited for penetration (of the safe). This is followed by the scene shifting back to the apartment building and the sudden and shocking (and graphic) death of one of the residents. This messy structure characterizes the second half of “82 Tenants” and while it might be a metaphor—in this case a meta-metaphor—for the disorderly but vital lives of the tenants it is probably more a matter of things getting a bit out of control.

Lo Meng and Yau Chui-Ling who play the cross border couple give the most memorable performances if only because so much of the action hinges on their predicament and their situation is the most stark and bathetic. Kara Hui has very little to do, mainly popping up to act annoyed whenever Gordon Liu looks at a woman. Liu’s character is generally the victim of misunderstanding although he does have one good scene involving an officious traffic cop who apparently hates cabbies and a surprising visit from a Supreme Court judge.

A decent Shaw Brothers comedy in which the bad guys are defeated and made to look ridiculous while the good guys are a bit better off at the end of the movie than at the beginning.

Reviewer Score: 6