The sight of the normally bald Gordon Liu rocking a Robert Reed-style perm is a scary one but don't let that turn you away from watching 1982's The 82 Tenants. This film is a farcical comedy about the very real housing crunch in Hong Kong and something of a dose of reality in a studio output largely given to fantasies of the modern and martial arts worlds.
What's so interesting is that the Shaw Studios were cranking out Mandarin films up until the early 1970s in an attempt to appeal to the Chinese-speaking world and not just Hong Kong. While Hong Kong might be mentioned, or shown, in an early film, the goal was to appeal to other audiences and not just local ones.
Then, by 1982, you have a film like The 82 Tenants which is solely designed to appeal to local audiences. I mean, the comedy and star-power would appeal to others -- it appealed to me! -- but the situations in the film are so particular to Hong Kong -- Hong Kong of 1982 -- that it's hard to quite get a handle on the comedy now from another perspective.
Gordon Liu is not the only Shaws tough guy in this reality-based comedy as Lo Meng, recently in Ip Man 2 (2010), is here too.
And Shaws' tough gals are represented by Kara Hui, recent Hong Kong Film Award winner.
As the plot quickly unfolds amid scenes of broad comedy in the overcrowded apartment complex, rick playboy Ah Bing (Nat Chan) learns that the building is to be sold except for the flat he shares with Mrs. Zhang (Betty Ting Pei), the wife of a late and well-respected tenant.
Add to that, Kara Hui's landlady who seems more intent on teasing Gordon Liu's cabble than providing services to her tenants.
There are moments where it seems like Nat Chan is underplaying -- I know that is hard to believe -- and, while the comedy bits early on are very broad, the fact that things are rooted in a very real setting somehow makes the film feel slightly less silly than other comedies of this era do; it's not a Wong Jing picture, in other words.
In a great scene, Gordon Liu sits on a balcony looking out over the Hong Kong cityscape at night. His mind wanders into a fantasy scene where he's berating a cop for giving him tickets -- he chases the cop on the motorcycle down in his taxi and gives him a ticket -- and then Gordon is marrying Kara Hui in an elaborate wedding procession. It's a nice bit of comedy that feels less slapsticky and more based on character.
When it looks like Lo Meng's wife is going to be deported and his new baby left without a Hong Kong birth certificate -- and thus deprived of health care and education -- the tenants consider signing the building over to Ah Bing and Mrs. Zhang in a weird scheme.
As the film starts to get too serious, it gets funny again when a sexy tenant (Margaret Lee Din-Long) is sent out to seduce the head of the real estate firm set to buy the tenants' beloved building.
I found the ending of this film confusing as it seemed as if things were not quite resolved. But, if you want to see a short, slight comment on life in Hong Kong, circa 1982, you could do worse than The 82 Tenants.
You can order The 82 Tenants on DVD here.