Review first Published by Sight & Sound, December 2010
Synopsis: 30th Oct, 2007, Hong Kong, late night in a swanky building overlooking Victoria Bay. A young woman in overalls enters, and coolly garottes the security guard. Ascending to the top floors, Cheng Lai Sheung murders a further ten people (plus an unborn baby) in two apartments, blithely unconcerned as to whether her victims are the owners, their staff or just visitors. Meanwhile, a series of interlocking flashbacks reveals Sheung’s history. As a child in 1991, she wishes for a home with a harbour view for her ex-sailor grandfather, while Triad gangs terrorise her neighbours out of their buildings to make room for property developments. As a new highrise emerges in 1997 (the year of the handover), Sheung’s old tenement building remains an island of poverty in a sea of modern skyscrapers. Sheung quits school to get work and help the family move, but in 2004, before Sheung can afford a new home for them, her mother dies. Now working two full-time jobs, Sheung finds her savings jeopardised by her ex-builder father’s mesothelioma. Desperately, she lets her father die and cashes in his insurance, but as she is about to purchase her dream home, a market hike leads the owners to demand a higher price. Sheung goes on her calculated killing spree in the two surrounding apartments, effectively rendering her dream home unsellable so that she can bargain down the price. As she and her brother move in, she realises that her bed does not quite fit into the bedroom – even as news comes in of the collapse of the US sub-prime market, and the likelihood of further volatility.
Review: “In a crazy city, if one is to survive, he’s got to be more crazy.”
So reads the text that opens Pang Ho-cheung’s Dream Home, preceded by a brief primer on the gulf between average Hong Kong earnings and property prices, and followed by the words: “this is based on a true story.” It isn’t, of course. Pang concocted his murderous premise after a dinner he had spent with some friends complaining about the property market – but if his protagonist Cheng Lai Sheung (Josie Ho, who also co-produced) is pure fiction, the political, economical and historical specificities of the place and time that she inhabits are all too real. This is a genre-bound slasher film set within the shifting landscapes of pre- and post-handover Hong Kong, with Sheung herself coming to embody all the dog-eat-dog corruption, criminality and craziness around her. It is also, arguably, the first horror film to tap into contemporary anxieties about housing prices, social immobility and the recession – and Pang directs all his bleak, bloody satire with panache, bringing a deft fluency to his time-shifting plotline.
If a montage of the Hong Kong highrise in the film’s opening credits sequence induces a queasy sort of vertigo in the viewer (not least because of some subtle CG trickery that makes the buildings seem ever so slightly to sway and reel), then the film’s subsequent shifts in tone from horror to comedy to pathos and back again, and its involving non-chronological structure, prove every bit as disorienting in moral terms. When downtrodden, insanely ambitious Sheung is shown sneaking into the swanky harbourside address of No.1 Victoria Bay and going on a ruthlessly methodical killing spree against staff, residents and guests alike, an interlocking series of flashbacks gradually reveals the story of who she is, why she is so driven to own an apartment with a harbour view, and what chain of frustrations and disappointments has led her to this final, desperate act.
So while the murderous set-pieces are gloriously gory and rather blackly funny (with many ordinary domestic items being inventively converted into deadly weapons), their grotesque nastiness and breathtaking excess are constantly off-set by the drama and pathos of the perpetrator’s past, so that our sympathy and revulsion are brought uneasily together under one roof. Sheung may be shown slicing and dicing her way through eleven total strangers (including a heavily pregnant woman), but her conduct is fully contextualised – if never quite justified – by her (and Hong Kong’s) history of misfortunes and injustices. Sure Sheung is crazy, but in a ‘crazy city’ where the market is murder and where developers and the state collude with violent Triad gangs to force families out of their tenements, Sheung’s horrific behaviour seems right at home.