Written by: Ho-Cheung Pang (story), Ho-Cheung Pang, Kwok Cheung Tsang, & Chi-Man Wan (screenplay)
Directed by: Ho-Cheung Pang
Starring: Josie Ho, Eason Chan and Michelle Ye
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
3 bedrooms, 2 ½ baths...to kill for.
The currently tumultuous economical climate (particularly the housing market) has suffocated American headlines for the past few years, but things are rough all over. If we’re to believe Dream Home, the situation in Hong Kong is rather absurd, as potential tenants are forced to pay exorbitant costs for modestly-sized apartment buildings. It’s enough to drive someone crazy, which is literally what happens in this brutally violent splatter film that feels like it was carved out for the 99%.
Haunted by the memories of her own crummy childhood, Cheng Lai-sheung (Josie Ho) is a twenty-something woman who dreams of owning her own place. She works two jobs (one of which is basically prostitution) to earn enough money to finally buy the apartment that she’s scoped out for months. This may not prove to be enough, however, as she’s driven to actually murder multiple tenants in the building once she finally snaps.
I don’t think Virginia Woolf quite had this in mind when she wrote that each woman should have a room of their own. Specifically feminist concerns aren’t really at the heart here, though it’s certainly an undercurrent; there’s a feeling that Dream Home is condemning that this otherwise well-adjusted girl is forced to work a shitty job and then whore herself out, all for the misguided notion that she’s got to own this swanky apartment with a view of the ocean. The narrative criss-crosses all over the place; it opens with her first murder, then cuts back to reveal her hanging out with her other cash-grabbing friends before delving back even further to her days as a child. Here, she spent time overhearing her elders’ discontent with the local realtors who basically bullied their slum-ridden tenants; she herself was forced to share a room with her brother, and they were both abandoned by their perpetually drunken and abusive father.
I realize that this sounds like a typical “broken home breeds psycho knife-wielder” plot, but Dream Home moves beyond that. Cheng is a fascinating character who earns our sympathy due to her well-rounded characterization. At one point during her killing spree, she attacks a bunch of yuppie kids who are in the middle of drinking, drugging, and fucking. When she tussles with one of the guys on the floor, he gains the advantage and is poised to make a killing blow, and you suddenly find yourself wincing, hoping he won’t land it. Pang has pulled the old Hitchcockian/Psycho trick of slyly moving your sympathies over to the homicidal maniac that’s already savaged a handful of people (with a pregnant lady being among them).
Maybe it’s because the economic unrest guiding her blade is palpable and relatable (to most, anyway). No, I don’t think most of us would suddenly become spree killers if we were denied a really nice apartment; this is a broad, almost absurd distilment of proletariat frustrations. But, like any great absurdist piece, it does capture some truth in its critique of the cutthroat capitalist system. The script even treads into issues of healthcare, as a subplot arises with Cheng’s suddenly ill father who is coldly denied treatment based on a loophole; all of this leads to one of his daughter’s most disturbing actions, and it’s one that truly reflects how her delusions have warped her. And make no mistake--this film is squarely on her side, as she is presented as a victim; once it looks like she may gain independence, one of her greatest triumphs is being able to rid herself of the guy who’s been paying her to have sex with him.
The screenplay hides the blown fuse that eventually inspires her bloodbath, instead choosing to show how that fuse was lit in the first place, decades earlier. It keeps us on her side, and, once we witness what finally sets her off, it cements our empathy despite what we’ve seen her do. Her deeds are indeed horrific and related with unflinching brutality by Pang’s camera. A lot of splatter films present their gore that we’re meant to marvel at; the gags and effects here are certainly impressive, but they’re genuinely disturbing at times. If the film has one misstep, it comes when Cheng forces a guy to literally spill his guts, leaving him slumped over on the floor, still alive and in agony. However, this doesn’t stop him from trying to take another drag of his cigarette. It’s an oddly toned moment that sticks out and made me wonder if they whole thing isn’t meant to be silly. This sequence also features the requisite take-off of the scene where the slasher catches two kids in the act of screwing, though this one has one of the funnier payoffs I’ve seen. Let’s just say the girl gets a money shot she wasn’t expecting.
Those funnier moments admittedly stick out a bit; I mean, if you reduce the entire premise to “girl goes nuts because she wants a nice home,” you might expect a black comedy. But I think Dream Home is a little bit too deadpan for most of its running time for that. Cheng’s childhood and her eventual relationship with her father are treated too genuinely. Ultimately, the film sticks its landing rather well, as most of it is unexpectedly incisive for a slasher film; I think it’d make a fine feature alongside Saw VI. Taken together, those two horror flicks manage to mix schlock with brains to provide insight into the political zeitgeist of the past decade. Dream Home is indeed the rare horror film that isn’t in over its head with politics, and Pang has crafted a marvelous film around the indignation lying at the center. Slick, ruthless, and fierce, it’s one of the better horror films released in the last year. You can check it out on Netflix streaming (where it’s available in HD, which is noteworthy since there’s no Blu-ray), or the IFC DVD; both options give you the original Cantonese and Chinese tracks that are of course subtitled. Either way, find room for this one in your own home. Buy it!
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