DREAM HOME Review

James Marsh, Asian Editor

Cheng Lai Sheung (Josie Ho) has a dream. One day she wants to buy a luxury apartment with a harbour view. She knows exactly which one she wants and has been saving her whole life to get it. Property has always been an issue in her family. Like many working class families in Hong Kong, she grew up in small cramped lodgings, sharing a room with her younger brother. She works two jobs and never allows herself to spend frivolously, even if it means missing out on trips with her friends and colleagues. Her only release is a secret affair with a married businessman (Eason Chan), but their brief rendezvous in love hotels offer little in the way of real pleasure or romance. When the opportunity finally arises to secure the purchase of her dream home, Sheung will do whatever it takes to ensure the deal goes through - even if that means killing for it!

DREAM HOME has been in the headlines pretty much from the get-go. Until very recently most news stories focused on reported creative clashes between writer/director Pang Ho Cheung and producer/lead actress Josie Ho. Pang wanted his contractual promise of final cut honoured while Josie wanted to ensure that the money she was investing produced a project she was happy with. Exactly who fought for what in terms of violence, nudity, humour, darkness or whatever remains unclear, but a compromise was obviously reached and the film finally premiered last month at the Udine Far East Film Festival. Since being submitted to the censors for rating ahead of its Hong Kong release on 13th May, DREAM HOME has successfully whipped up something of a media frenzy regarding its gratuitous on-screen violence. Slapped with a Category III rating, meaning nobody under 18 is allowed to see the film, DREAM HOME was still subjected to nearly 30 seconds of cuts before being granted release. Considering the quantities of blood and gore that remain, the film is likely to be high on all horror film and gore fans watchlists for 2010 and hopefully in some quarters, will arrive uncut.

High praise should first be given to Josie Ho. Her performance as Sheung is both endearing and unnerving - we sympathise with her as she agonisingly ploughs through her telemarketing scripts at her day job, or stalks customers through the department store where she also works. We too feel used and taken for granted when Eason Chan's buffoon of a boyfriend appears drunk and late to their date, looking only to kop a quick feel before passing out. Ho also succeeds in sending a shiver down the spine as the cold, calculating homicidal maniac who wreaks bloody havoc on the residents of 1, Victoria Bay.

Pang Ho Cheung deserves plaudits for again proving to be the most tuned-in and socially aware filmmaker working in Hong Kong today. As he displayed earlier this year with his spot-on romantic comedy LOVE IN A PUFF, Pang has an ear for authentic and amusing dialogue, capturing the true voice of the city's young adult generation. DREAM HOME cuts right to the heart of the city's daily woes, conflicts and dilemmas. Too many young professionals find themselves still holed-up in the family home, financially committed to supporting their parents, while struggling to save enough to get married and escape to a place of their own. Success and financial affluence surrounds them, but for too many it is a cruel temptress that remains forever just beyond reach. Ridiculously long working hours, dysfunctional love lives, too much take away food and insufficient personal space are instead the daily realities. It is no wonder that Sheung, burdened by all this as well as insurance claims, estate agents and ailing parents, finally cracks under the pressure. And when she does, nobody is safe.

Pang adopts a bold, fragmented structure in DREAM HOME, drip-feeding the horrific events of Sheung's Halloween night massacre one grotesque moment at a time throughout the film's running time. The opening scene, in which the apartment building's night security guard is mercilessly garrotted, occurs seemingly without motive, but as Pang takes us back - days, weeks, years - we slowly begin to understand what has triggered Sheung into action.

The good news is that when the film does turn its attention towards reckless slaughter, it makes for delightfully disgusting viewing. Actor-turned-make-up maestro Andrew Lin, together with Bangkok effects house QFX, runs riot, creating dozens of gross-out moments that will have audiences squirming, screaming and in some reported cases, actually passing out. Even the most jaded and desensitised gore hounds should find cause for celebration as characters are stabbed, skewered, suffocated, disembowelled and even dismembered by Ho's homicidal heroine. DREAM HOME returns Hong Kong Cinema to a level of gratuitous violence not seen since the glory days of RIKI-OH! and THE UNTOLD STORY, and even in its current, slightly sanitised form, DREAM HOME is nasty in all the right ways.

All that being said, it is for these very reasons that the film also fails to be truly successful. DREAM HOME's primary failing is that it tries to be too many things at once and is almost too competent for its own good. When it wants to be an intelligent piece of social commentary it succeeds. When it wants to be a gleefully absurd and sadistic slasher movie, it hits the spot perfectly. What it is unable to do, however, is marry these two wildly different styles into a single, tonally balanced narrative. Pang wants us to really sympathise with Josie's character and fully understand what has driven her into this dark, terrifyingly psychotic state - and we do. So much so in fact, that when he then asks his audience to laugh, scream and revel in her horrific acts of irrational murder Pang's audience is left emotionally conflicted.

DREAM HOME will primarily attract a horror crowd and the major cause for concern is that the lengthy periods spent beautifully detailing Sheung's descent into madness may be regarded as excessively superfluous exposition. Attentions may wander and viewers could grow restless as they await the next kill scene. On the other hand, audiences looking for an intelligent portrait of one woman's slide into psychotic instability may find the scenes of violence too shocking and even too puerile for their tastes. Sadly, the demographic willing to embrace both sides of this stylishly handled, yet tonally awkward coin may yet prove too small, which is a shame because in parts, DREAM HOME should delight both social realists and splatter fans alike.   

Cross published in bc Magazine (Hong Kong)
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