Acclaimed director Ho-Cheung Pang unleashed this utterly demented little gem from Hong Kong in 2010, and Network Releasing now bring it to UK audiences in an excellent looking DVD edition that includes as an extra a ten minute interview with the film’s star, Josie Ho -- who was also its producer and the singer on the cool indie rock track that soundtracks one of its many moments of sadistically violent splatter mayhem. “Dream Home” is a film to which application of the term ‘uneven’ would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions. Reading over some of the other reviews that have surfaced online, the film’s schizophrenic mission to be both smart social satire and grungy gore spectacular often appears to be the main reason many of them cite for having issues with it, although the juxtaposition of utterly brutal, protracted and distastefully gory murder scenes with a back story that seems to demand some degree of empathy with the perpetrator of what are often a needlessly cruel series of crimes, is undoubtedly an intentional strategy on the part of the director. These two sides of the film undoubtedly clash big time, but Pang’s sophisticated flashback structure introduces a certain distancing effect to the events; we’re left with the mystery of how a slightly built, attractive and reserved young lady who works in a bank could become the sadistic torturer we see on screen, senselessly slaughtering her way through the residents of a block of luxury flats and leaving more carnage in her wake in a couple of hours than Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers could manage between then in a month.
The film opens with a countdown clock like the one we used to see regularly on “24” every week. The orgy of killing takes place in the space of a few hours on one night in the year 2007, and the first innocent and unsuspecting victim -- a snoozing security guard -- meets the first of many extremely nasty ends Ho-Cheung Pang has in store for his characters by being slowly throttled to death by a plastic industrial Ti the killer fastens around his neck. Pang doesn’t just make the death scenes gory, gruesome and over-the-top (although they are all these things), they’re also very, very long and painful to watch; the deaths of each character are drawn out for a sadistically protracted length of time as we witness their death throes in unnerving detail. The opening agonising death of the security guard, for instance, ends up with him desperately slicing at his own throat with a knife in order to relieve the pressure, eventually resulting only in his piercing his own jugular and expiring in a geyser of blood. There does actually turn out to be a specific reason why so many of the killings involve painfully slow asphyxiation; it’s a reference to a key event in the killer’s life and which is in a sense being re-lived by her each time she causes another death. Pang carefully paces the rest of these kill sequences, spreading them out throughout the movie in exactly the same pattern as would normally be found in any of the classic American slashers the director claims to love, returning every ten minutes or so to the same night of insane slaughter for yet another set-piece displaying some increasingly brutal bouts of murderous creativity.
But in between these bloody episodes the film takes us back through the life of Cheng Lai-Sheung in a non-linear, impressionistic series of snap-shots, not necessarily arranged in any chronological order but taken at various stages from throughout her childhood and into her adult life -- where she is trying to hold down five jobs simultaneously and look after her sick father as well. The social and economic milieu of Hong Kong through the eighties and nineties turns out to be a central plank in the film’s critique of the spiralling property boom (on which the prosperity of Hong Kong had largely depended until the global credit crunch brought the markets crashing down a few years ago) that provides the tipping point for Sheung’s obsessive psychology. Viewing episodes from her childhood takes us on a journey back to the beginnings of the rise of Hong Kong’s particularly acute development craze, a boom that resulted in poorer families being cleared from their homes (often by fairly criminal means) so that expensive luxury flats could be built in sight of the harbour (a sea-view commanding a particularly exorbitant price on the market). Sheung grew up in these surroundings, watching her friends’ families being removed one by one and their homes being demolished to make way for posher, more expensive pads and luxury condos. We see how loyalty to her family and the desire to better their way of life has become ingrained in Sheung’s psyche in the form of an obsessive quest to install her mother in a more spacious flat with a harbour view. When her mother dies before she can afford to make such a change, the sense of shame leads her to take any job she can to make it a reality as a tribute to her dead mother and as an aid in the recovery of her aging sick father. She works as a call worker at a bank, selling loans to clients over the phone, as well as a sales clerk at a posh department store. Consumerism, then, dominates her waking hours, and at night she lives a tawdry imitation of the lavish lifestyle she craves by having a tryst with a gormless and inconsiderate married man in an expensive hotel. She saves every penny she can to make her dream a reality, and then find out that her father needs an expensive operation to save his life which isn’t covered by her insurance plan!
In any other film, Josie Ho’s subtle performance, which is understated and emotionally powerful, would be a potential candidate for serious film awards and plaudits aplenty. The insidious domination of Sheung’s consciousness by social forces that create this obsessive desire to live an upmarket lifestyle she can ill-afford also lead her bit by bit down a path which ends with her committing a terrible act in order to achieve that goal -- an act which undoubtedly also tips her over the edge when she finally earns enough money to make the final purchase on the home of her dreams, only to have the rug pulled from beneath her by the sellers upping the price at the last minute. Taken on their own, these sequences, in which Ho portrays Sheung’s stoic determination going gradually off the rails as she makes one moral compromise too many in her quest to make her property dream come true, all of it ultimately for nothing – make for a compelling, low-key excoriation of a society selling false dreams and making many poor people poorer in order to achieve the illusion, shot by cinematographer Yu Lik Wai in beautifully rendered naturalistic style that concentrates on shots of towering blocks of flats, both new and old, documenting the transformation of Hong Kong harbour’s skyline over the years the flashbacks through Sheung’s life take place. This is all artfully rendered stuff of course, but ultimately, the same character is also seen at regular intervals in this tender story of honour, shame and corruption, indulging in heinous acts such as shoving a screwdriver through a man’s eye socket or ramming a plank from a wooden bedframe down a naked girl’s throat!
This bizarre disparity in the film’s content (one half thoughtful character portrait, the other crazed blood splattered blood frenzy) is all part of the film’s satirical bent: In the end, Shenung is shown as a product of a crazy system but her logic is consequently crazily apt: if the price of the property keeps going up because it is seen as being increasingly more valuable in the current market, then something has to be done to make it seem less so. A demented killing spree on the premises would undoubtedly do the trick -- and following the logic of this to its natural conclusion, the more violent, twisted, disgusting and insane this orgy of bloodletting, the lower the price can be driven! Thus we end up with cinema’s most unlikely serial killer: a pretty, raven-haired, blank faced murderer prepared to do anything in a dog eat dog world to get the home of her dreams.
Pang makes Sheung’s catalogue of murders relentlessly bloody, but even so they vary in nature from the comic-book absurdist splatter displayed in various gruesome disembowelments, castrations, or scenes of death-by-bed-plank and the like -- which are dealt out to characters that the film is quite content to portray unsympathetically, such as a pair of horny teenagers and some doped up prostitutes they invite round for a foursome; or a smug, bigamist golf obsessed husband. But Sheung’s victims are also often totally innocent and undeserving of the fate that gets meted out to them for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. These death scenes are frequently of a far more harrowing nature than those of the more unpleasant “deserving” victims. Number one on this list is a particularly nasty scene in which a heavily pregnant female resident of one of the flats in the condo is put through a horrendous ordeal which culminates in her being slowly suffocated to death with a plastic bag and an attachment tube from a vacuum cleaner while she miscarries from a heavy fall sustained in the struggle. Shenung carries out all these atrocities without any of the histrionics of the typical movie psychopath: she remains notably the same person we see in all the sympathetic flashbacks. She’s not in any way superhuman either, and her victims frequently manage to wound her during their death struggles, inflicting cuts, heavy punches and even an attempted strangulation, and by the end she’s sustained a particularly nasty wound in her foot from having it impaled on a carving knife.
The problem of how we’re meant to react to the film’s gleeful excesses is inescapable. In my review of “A Serbian Film” I pondered how seriously we could take the director’s claim that he was attempting to make a political point, given the film’s juxtaposition of some seriously unpleasant and graphic imagery with other sequences that included often quite humorous OTT imagery. The same problem is even more pronounced in “Dream Home” although there is nothing in it quite so potentially offensive as the material that was included in “A Serbian Film”. Ultimately, I think Pang’s film works because we’re not meant to entirely sympathise with Shenung’s plight, even though we might recognise an echo of it in our own everyday lives: her madness is a metaphor for a system that is beginning to fail, the property owning dream is producing monsters while the victims could be anyone, sympathetic or otherwise. The film ends on a starkly ironic note, jumping forward to 2010 as Sheung gets her home at a knock-down price, just as the bottom falls out of the property market and it becomes virtually worthless. Even if you’re prepared to kill to make your dreams come true, there are forces powerful and unpredictable enough to take it all away in a blink of an eye.
Network Releasing make a rare excursion into gory splatter horror with this release and the film’s transfer looks pretty nice, with very readable removable English subtitles included. There is a ten minute interview with lead actress Josie Ho, whose production company also financed the film, who talks about what attracted her to the project; plus a theatrical trailer and an image gallery. The disc also comes with a booklet with a 2,000 word piece by Billy Chainsaw about the film’s significance and its contribution to the slasher genre and its place in Asian cinema.
“Dream Home” is a spiky, no-holds-barred satire with some of the most well-executed screen gore and finely directed murder sequences that I’ve seen for some time -- and that’s saying something in today’s market!