The House of the 72 Tenants

Reviewed by YTSL

I’m not sure about other people but this Hong Kong film fan had been feeling some trepidation as well as excitement with regards to the Shaw Brothers movies that Celestial Pictures has been and will be re-releasing.  Apart from techie type concerns and those that stem from the sheer size of the collection whose contents many folks will be seeing for the first time in decades, if not ever, I also found myself wondering whether these near mythical offerings that have finally been freed from their place in the Shaw Brothers vault would seem too dated.  Furthermore, I have worried re whether they would appear overly foreign, even for someone who now feels comfortably familiar with the output of the more recent decades of Hong Kong cinema.

Lydia Shum, Cheng Lee, Yueh Hua
In bidding to minimize this possibility, I made sure that my first two introductory Celestial Pictures releases starred Cheng Pei Pei -- a former dancer turned actress who may have started her career as a Shaw Brothers contract worker but has continued to ply her trade up until the present day.  Emboldened by how much enjoyment I got out of viewing a 1960s musical (in “Hong Kong Nocturne”) as well as a classic wuxia work that I had previously only managed to see in faded, “pan and scan” form (i.e., “Come Drink with Me”), I next elected to check out a legendary comedy that: has been majorly credited with helping to revive Cantonese-dialect/language cinema (The mind almost boggles upon learning via David Bordwell’s “Planet Hong Kong” that, in 1972, the year before THE HOUSE OF 72 TENANTS’s initial theatrical release, “no Cantonese films were made” (See 2000:66)); plus looked to have been warmly referenced two decades later in “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father” (a nostalgia drenched U.F.O. work that featured an appearance by this box office champ’s director-scriptwriter, Chor Yuen, as well as a main character -- played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai -- who was named after him).
Hu Chin, Cheng Lee, Tien Ching and Ku Feng
THE HOUSE OF 72 TENANTS is a generally affectionate as well as often comic portrait of Hong Kong at the peak of an economic depression, and during a time of high inflation -- when a bar of soap or sack of flour could just one day later cost as much as two of the exact same stock did the day before.  Although its context plus subject matter -- which, broadly speaking, include human nature, social problems and communal goings on -- are not innately humorous ones, the movie apparently succeeded in generating a bundle of laughs along with some fortunately not long-lasting tears during its climb to the top of the 1973 box office list.  Re the matter of its out-grossing even the Bruce Lee starring “Enter the Dragon”: This probably stemmed in large part from this collective spirited product of what might have been labeled at the time as a “right wing studio” turning out to be -- as Bey Logan opined in an interview that’s part of the film’s DVD package -- a “celebration of the common man in Hong Kong”.  At the same time, the eventful offering undoubtedly appealed as well to 1970s era “Fragrant Harbour” cinema-goers by way of possessing a cast that has been described as “a virtual who’s who of the local entertainment scene” (whose names -- and that of the characters they play -- actually get flashed on the screen when they make their first appearance in the film).
Cheng Lee, Hu Chin and Karen Yip Leng Chi
As might be gathered from its (English language) title, THE HOUSE OF 72 TENANTS centers around certain colorful personalities who live in the same large building -- that’s actually multiply divided up into separate units -- and are liable to frequently cross swords as well as paths with their fellow tenement residents.  These include: the good looking -- but frequently bad behaving -- landlady (Hu Chin plays the woman identified as Pat Koo in the English subtitles); her arrogant husband (Ah Bing is essayed by Tien Ching); her put upon adopted daughter (Ah Heung is portrayed by Cheng Li); a honest and handsome cobbler (Fat Choi comes in the form of Yueh Hua, one of whose earlier roles had been that of the drunken hero of “Come Drink with Me”); an activist olive vendor named Ah Fook (played by Hoh Sau San) together with his quieter wife (who is essayed by Nam Hung, the real life wife of Chor Yuen); and a lively laundress referred to as Shanghai Po (who Lydia Shum plays with quite a bit of relish).
Cheng Miao, Wong Hon and Ouyang Shafei
Among the supporting characters in THE HOUSE OF 72 TENANTS who, nonetheless, also manage to get embroiled in such as an argument about water rights, disputes over a pair of burnt trousers or a piece of stolen cloth, a bid to stop the planned eviction of a tenant and the foiling of an attempt to marry off a nineteen year old female to an old man who already had five concubines as well as a (senior) wife are: an elderly tailor and his gentle wife (Uncle and Auntie Chan are respectively portrayed by Wong Hon and Ouyang Shafei); a doctor who has just migrated to Hong Kong from Shantung (played by Cheng Miao - real life father of Cheng Li); plus a seemingly particularly impoverished cigarette vendor (Wong Ching Ho’s character still gets respectfully addressed as Uncle Yeung though by most of the other tenants).  A few others whose presence adds flavor plus socio-cultural variety to this packed effort are: Shanghai Man (Cheng Hong Yip character is the husband of Shanghai Po); a crooked cop (Police Constable 369 is played by Liu I-Fan); a consumptive as well as jobless university graduate (Han Yi Shi is essayed by Leung Tin) and his double job holding -- to compensate for her spouse’s unemployed plus sickly state -- wife (The elegant but understandably often tired looking Mrs. Han is portrayed by Karen Yip Leng Chi).
Nam Hung, Liu I-Fan, Helena Law Lan
Despite the still entertaining after all these years -- without being “side-splitting laughter” inducing, like had been promised in its original trailer -- offering having the title it does, not all of the 72 stars (or characters) who populate THE HOUSE OF 72 TENANTS are residents of the crowded living quarters whose address gets given as No. 96 Chan Yuen.  Additionally, even while this surprisingly unclaustrophic feeling work looks to have been entirely shot inside the Shaw Brothers Studio, other settings inside of which events occur include a market, an underground casino, a brothel and assorted streets and alleyways.  For the most part, it is these supplemental locations where Hong Kong filmophiles can get further amusement by way of spotting certain individuals who only have minor roles in this effort but would achieve greater prominence in years and decades to come (like Helena Law Lan and Danny Lee; though Adam Cheng and Ricky Hui did end up at the movie’s main locale as members of a crew of firefighters who went there in response to what turned out to be a false fire alarm).
Danny Lee and Shih Szu

My rating for the film: 7.5

For another review of The House of 72 Tenants plus a Gallery of the Actors/Charcters, click here.