Friday, May 17, 2024

SIFF 2024: 'Tenement' Movie Review

a woman surrounded by cult members
Much of Cambodian import Tenement, making its North American debut at the Seattle International Film Festival, will be familiar to those reasonably well-versed in supernatural horror. The story follows someone returning to a place they once had a connection to and finding it haunted by more than memories. Though the film may lack a bit of originality, it delivers an effective, to-the-point, gorgeously staged chiller.


Following the death of her mother, and stuck in a particular moment of professional stagnation, Soriya (Thanet Thorn), a Cambodian manga writer living in Japan, and her photographer boyfriend Daichi (Yoshihiko Hosoda), returns to the crumbling apartment complex in Phnom Penh her family once occupied. Looking for familial insight and creative inspiration, culture clashes, grief, stress, and more escalate into dark terrors and nightmare shit as deep seated secrets creep into the light of day. As it turns out, things might not be exactly as they appear on the surface. 


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woman in a car

Writer/directors Sokyou Chea and Inrasothythep Neth steep every element in history. There are individual ghosts to contend with, both literal and figurative, long-standing ancestral friction, and more lingering wounds and unfolding mysteries. A national legacy of trauma also pervades everything. The tenement itself is a decaying remnant of the Khmer Rouge regime, a relic of a bygone but still all-too-recent era, and that history of genocide and repression hangs heavy, echoing through the apartments, passageways, and the people who live there. The building is a place with a reputation, where, even located in the middle of the city, locals give it a wide berth, creating an isolated, in-the-wilderness sensation.


The filmmakers use the archaic confines to spooky effect, framing the dark and hidden corners of the structure in unusual ways, playing with the brutalist architecture, taking advantage of the peeling paint, disintegrating walls, and abandoned rooms. They frequently show off the skyline as seen from the apartment complex and include wide drone shots of the exterior, both of which drive home the feeling that this place is simultaneously part of and separate from the world that surrounds it. Striking imagery and a sprinkling of horrific sights should cool the blood well enough.


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For everything it does well, Tenement never truly escapes the familiarity of it all. The film plays all the hits. We have eerie audio recordings, Daichi’s photos often reveal things the naked eye misses, the narrative toys with the idea that maybe the protagonist is losing her mind, it explores the blurry space between sleep and wakefulness, and more. Even the very concept is one most horror fans have seen many, many times. Still, even though it never goes anywhere unexpected, and is thin in places, it’s moody, nice-looking, and spooky enough to warrant checking out. [Grade: B-]


Find all our 2024 Seattle International Film Festival coverage here.

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