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Monday 28 February 2011

Dream Home (2010)

Director: Pang Ho-Cheung
Stars: Josie Ho and Eason Chen

Josie Ho is a pretty important person in Hong Kong, one who managed to escape the shadow of being one of the seventeen children of Macau billionaire Stanley Ho, who made his substantial fortune through a forty year government backed monopoly over the Macau casino industry. Such a background could hardly have hurt her in attempts to found her own career in entertainment, but she proved to be a talented actress, singer and model, winning a Hong Kong Film Award for her role in Naked Ambition. It's hardly surprising that she would eventually found a production company, 852 Films, but it's surprising that its first feature would take obvious satirical swipes at a number of institutions, from the Hong Kong government to the real estate industry, even the very idea of following your dream, whatever the cost. Dream Home purports to be inspired by a true story, which I can't validate, but it's as much a social satire as a gruesome horror movie.

Cheng Lai-sheung, Josie Ho's character, simply wants an apartment at 1, Victoria Place, one with a view of the harbour. The catch is that real estate is insanely expensive in Hong Kong, as the opening statistics detail. It costs $30,000 per square foot for a harbour view, because times are tough in Hong Kong and prices are going up faster than income. Cheng sticks to her guns though and pursues that apartment with gusto, working three jobs, if you can count the third as a job. By day she works the phones at Jetway Bank, by night she sells imported bags at a fashion store. In what little free time this leaves her, she's the mistress of a married man with money, booking hotels by the hour in hopes that prostituting her body will translate into a substantial payday down the road. Yet even with such dedication, it just isn't enough and she realises that the only way to get her apartment is to turn this movie into a slasher flick.

There are really two sides to this story: the biting satire on materialism and real estate in Hong Kong and the gruesome slasher movie. While the film has received predominantly good reviews, those that speak to the negative wonder whether these two sides coexist successfully, and I find that a difficult question to answer. For the most part I think they do, because the background the film provides about government corruption and collusion with organised crime is the only real way we can find sympathy for Cheng as she does her bloody deeds. Without sympathy this film would be nothing but a slasher movie, its selling points merely based around imagination and gore effects. The history we're given to Cheng's character, why she has this particular dream and the depth given to the characters she disposes of inevitably lead us to ask the question of whether what she does is any worse than what they do. She succeeds in becoming an anti-hero.
The biggest flaw I found with the film is in how much it leaps around in time. The present day is 2007 but we visit as far back as 1991 and many years in between, not in any particular order but only as needed to flesh out another bit of background. It's too much and the bizarre concept of providing us with times as well as years just confuses things. What does it matter what time it is in 1999 when we're only going to leap to 2004 two minutes later before jumping back to 1997? What survives through these temporal shenanigans is a successful building of character and a neatly imaginative sense for gory death scenes. Fortunately the two work pretty well together, though this would have been more realistic if director and co-writer Pang Ho-Cheung would have had his way and kept the imagination down and the realism up. Josie Ho freely admits that she wanted more over the top gore and while that increases the fun, it drops the realism.

To be honest, I don't know which way I'd have preferred. Given the methods taken to dispose of some of these victims, more realism would have been truly brutal and may well have completely overwhelmed the satire. One death scene in particular has our anti-hero tying and manhandling a pregnant woman before slipping a space saver bag over her head and vacuuming out the air. I cringed more at what looked like a painful bump to the back of her head as she was dragged up some steps, but if the whole scene hadn't been so utterly outrageous it would have been difficult to stomach. By the time Cheng turns a flat where a small party is going on into a gory massacre, we're in pure fantasyland and laughing aloud at each gruesomely inventive death scene. On this level, the film outdoes anything I've seen lately from Hollywood, though if it does well, there will surely be the inevitable American remake to see if they can up the stakes in this department.
I doubt they'll manage it. The death scenes are superbly executed, pun well and truly intended, with excellent work from make up effects man Andrew Lin, far better known as a supporting actor and member of the Cantopop boy band Alive with Josie Ho's husband, Conroy Chan. IMDb only lists one previous effects credit, for creature design in a 1996 TV series called Cyberkidz, so his achievements here are truly astounding. He may well have found himself a new career, one a bit higher up the respect ladder than boy band member. It isn't merely the quality of the effects, though, it's how they're used. The first death is relatively quick and easy, a security guard asleep on the job being neatly strangled to death with a garotte. It only gets bloody when he tries to cut off the noose. However they build as the film runs on, getting more elaborate, more gruesome and more memorable. By the finalé, the choreography plays a key part too.

I loved the ending, which is delightfully ironic and utterly appropriate. It really flips the question we've juggled all along right round. For most of the film, we know Cheng is the killer and that she kills for a cause that doesn't rank high up any list of justifiable homicides we could compile, yet we do feel some sympathy for her, given her past history and her dedication. The fantasy horror tone of the story helps us root for her regardless. Yet once we reach the finalé we can't help but reevaluate everything, including how much we were behind her. It's a peach of an ending, a neat cap to a joyous riot of blood. It also reminds us of the film's social comment, which gradually got lost amidst the gore. We notice that it got lost too, which decreases its value somewhat, but that last scene brings it back and raises it in a whole new way. There are plot inconsistencies galore, so don't look for a tight script, but for satirical political comment and gleeful grue this is a riot.

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