Film Review: Tenement 66 (2021)

Director Rae Red’s Tenement 66 is a psychological thriller filled with crimes, lies, deceit, and good old-fashioned moral quandaries.

Starring Francis Magundayao as Teban, a troubled teenager who moves to the titular Tenement 66 compound with his older brother and cousin after being bailed out for petty theft, he meets Francine Diaz’s Lea, who tells him that there is an old man stealing money in order to bail out his incarcerated son. A son who previously murdered an entire family. Desperate to help out his brother Tony with their financial struggles and Tony’s recent hospitalization, Teban agrees to help Lea steal the money.

Teban and Lea meet in secret

In order for any thriller to be successful, it needs to be able to create a sense of believable and urgent suspense. Red relies heavily on musical cues to do so. While some of the menacing antagonists might not be as scary as others, the thematic soundscape that composer Johann Mendoza creates is extremely effective. Eerie, unsettling and with strong use of sampling and Asian scales and instruments, Mendoza’s music is what elevates Tenement 66 to a whole new level.

Thematically, Tenement 66 is nothing spectacular. It focuses on Teban’s struggle to leave behind his life of crime, but in an attempt to do so getting sucked back into it. He starts the film getting bailed out of jail by his brother, where he has ended up because of petty theft. In order to get rid of his financial instability, he decides to help Lea rob an antagonistic old man. However, it seems impossible for him to fix his problems by returning to the same old habits.

Throughout the film it is impossible not to notice how young the three main protagonists are. Teban, Lea and Teban’s cousin Ron-Ron (portrayed by Noel Comia Jr.) are all around the 17 to 19 year old mark. Their naive faces grace the screen with a youthful innocence, and watching them get tortured on two separate occasions by two different hedonistic adult men only adds to the sympathy you feel for them. They are dealing with problems well beyond their capacity to comprehend or deal with them properly, without any external help.

Red makes it clear that the main reason Teban and his brother Tony are having financial difficulties is because Tony keeps having to bail him out of jail. It seems counterintuitive, then, for Teban to keep robbing people in order to fix his problems. But really it makes a lot of sense. Teban is young and desperate, unable to see the long term consequences of his actions. While he has not yet been sucked into a life of crime completely, his brother’s accident and immediate need for medical care and expenses is what drives him to help Lea.

As the film continues and more and more things go increasingly wrong for Teban, you can't help but start to get invested in his story and wondering how he will find his way out of this newer, bigger problem.

Lea stands in front of the Tenement 66 compound

Named after its location, Tenement 66’s setting is as much of a character as any person in the story. After all, it is Teban’s move into the compound that serves as the driving force for the entire story, but the secrets held within it that really hold the plot. 

Filled to the brim with lore, secrets and intricate folds, Tenement 66 feels like it is slowly encroaching on our protagonists. As the film continues, Teban, Lea, and Ron-Ron are confined in smaller and smaller rooms, and the walls feel like they are starting to cave in. The frame holds them increasingly closer as the film continues, subconsciously communicating to the audience how everything is closing in on them, to an almost claustrophobic degree.

While Red is able to craft a great sense of tension and establishes a riveting atmosphere, there is a lack of internal logic throughout the story. Multiple times, information is presented that contradicts previously established story elements. In order to steal the box, Teban and Lea pick three key-based padlocks to open the door with ease. However, once they find the box, they are unable to open it and secure the money, because they are unable to pick this padlock. When you realize much of the story would have been different if they could pick the padlock on the box, some of the film's reason starts to chip away.

Generally speaking, Red’s Tenement 66 feels like a decently suspenseful psychological thriller, but it juggles too many side characters and storylines in order to be a truly great experience. The first man who holds the three teenagers hostage could be omitted for a clearer and stronger story, where Teban, Lea and Ron-Ron are consistently trying to outsmart a vengeful and murderous prison fugitive, instead of one where new threats are introduced too late for them to really make an impact on the viewer.

This scarier and more powerful antagonist is kept from the audience until the last quarter of the film. While he is mentioned throughout the story, he is only fully introduced too late into the film to have a proper impact. As a character he really does terrify (though his previous crimes and motivation are left unclear), but he really doesn’t get enough screen time for his performance to have a lasting impact. Of his small amount of time in the story, too much of it is also used up to figure out who he really is...

Teban and Ron-Ron, jarred by their experiences

But in the end, Teban becomes a hero. Even if his path to getting there may not have been as righteous as he would have wanted, and notwithstanding the flaws on the story. Director Rae Red gives her own spin on the struggle of a teenager trying to leave behind a life of crime while having nowhere else to turn, while simultaneously crafting a suspenseful thriller that's pretty good at keeping the viewers engaged. Teban's internal struggles are cleverly and effectively portrayed, and if there is something powerful to take away from Tenement 66, it's that sometimes people are pushed into bad decisions and situations because they have nowhere left to go.

Tenement streams on iWantTFC and KTX.PH. 

Review by Valerie Tan.

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