The Tenants: Not a Kitchen Sink Drama but a Toilet Dystopia

in 34th Singapore International Film Festival

by Müge Turan

Eun-Kyung Yoon’s The Tenants (Seibja), winner of the FIPRESCI prize at the 34th Singapore Film Festival, follows Shin-dong (Kim Dae-geon) facing the challenges of environmental decay, overpopulation, and a lack of housing in a bleak city.

In a dystopian Seoul, the film follows Shin-dong, an office worker longing for an escape to the promised utopia of “Sphere 2.” However, in this Orwellian reality, Shin-dong faces eviction due to worsening environmental pollution and housing challenges. To buy time, a friend suggests subletting a part of his space, leading to a peculiar encounter with an unconventional couple, portrayed by Heo Dong-won and his wife, who rent his bathroom after curious negotiations. As the landlord’s eviction attempts intensify and the couple’s unsettling behavior disrupts Shin-dong’s life, a troubling truth emerges.

The story feels like a never-ending nightmare within the harsh realities of modern-day life—an endless pursuit of unattainable fulfillment. The apartment, supposed to be a comfort, transforms into a figurative prison, showing a clear class divide even without physical confinement. Shin-dong is a character who resides in his own cocoon of introspection, detached from the chaos outside. Yet, when confronted by a threatening system, he reluctantly emerges from this cocoon, diving into a surreal, darkly funny ordeal. His isolation mirrors society’s detachment, caused by urban decay and political upheaval, pulling individuals away from community bonds. His attempt at assuming diverse personas, like the “nice guy,” to navigate social norms while upholding his demands, adds a comedic layer that further entangles the narrative.

The Tenants skillfully mixes science fiction, horror, and dark comedy, using a range of eccentric characters to explore modern societal issues. The black and white cinematography skillfully enhances the film’s delusional atmosphere, while a metaphysical and surrealistic twist adds depth and intrigue. The film explores modern themes of loneliness and isolation, evoking a sense of uncanny familiarity, and reflecting our collective societal evolution as we seek refuge within seemingly secure spaces. It’s as if the system traps us in a routine of work and home, stripping away emotions, dreams, and vitality. Those outside the system are numbed, blurring the boundaries between reality and illusion. This smartly critiques corporate and state structures, shedding light on dehumanization while pondering the concept of home as both physical and emotional refuge.

Drawing inspiration from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) to Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite (2019), the film presents a surreal and thought-provoking nightmare of individuals trapped in a relentless rat race. They tirelessly pursue the unattainable “ceiling,” but each time they reach it, they discover it’s just another unsteady step, repeating an endless cycle of ascent. Constructing a reality that feels surreal and besieged by unfamiliar forces, The Tenants encapsulates the essence of a Kafkaesque existence. Reflecting the sentiments of Franz Kafka’s biographer Frederick R. Karl, who remarked, “You don’t give up, you don’t lie down and die. What you do is struggle against this with all of your equipment, with whatever you have. But of course, you don’t stand a chance.” This Kafkaesque portrayal perfectly mirrors our current reality as inhabitants of this planet.

Müge Turan
Edited by Robert Horton