As a Los Angeleno, I often marvel at the heinously high real estate and rent prices my fellow citizens and I are subjected to. Like New Yorkers, we here in La La Land will go wildly out of our way to find those secret amazing deals, and do all within our power to hang onto them (for several years I’ve been living in an apartment I don’t particularly like, just cause it is in a neighborhood I love and the price is a screamin’ deal). This sort of sad desperation caused by crippling real estate demands is the thematic backdrop for the demented new Hong Kong splatter-thriller, Dream Home – which states it is based on a true story, but presumably in the Fargo vein (ie, not).
Ostensibly, Dream Home falls into the classic Slasher subgenre of Tragic Slasher films, wherein the Slasher is the protagonist instead of the antagonist. The events of the film follow the subgenre’s conventional beats, establishing pathos for our anti-hero, Cheng Lai – Sheung (Josie Ho), before sending her over the edge into a murderous killing spree. Ever since her childhood, Cheng Lai has dreamed of having a sea-side view apartment, and as she’s gotten older she has specifically fixated on getting a unit in the monstrous condo complex built near her childhood stomping ground. But the prices in Hong Kong are sadistically exorbitant. We see her working two soul-crushing jobs – making bothersome cold calls for a bank, and selling purses in a retail store – back-to-back each day, never going out with her coworkers because she needs to save every penny. She’s also bearing the brunt of caring for her ailing father, whose hospital bills are eating into the savings she squirreling away to buy her “dream home.” Then, of course, just when she has finally has the apartment within her grasp, events conspire to yank it from her hands. She snaps, and the stabbing begins.
Differing from classic Tragic Slasher films, though, Dream Home is told non-linearly, weaving her single-night killing spree throughout the film, from beginning to end, along with flashbacks to her childhood setting up her obsession with her “dream home.” This has the interesting effect of removing some of the pathos we generally give to Tragic Slashers when we’ve followed their arc linearly. Here our Slasher anti-hero has a meaner edge.
While I adore gory Slasher movies, I am not a very big fan of the “extreme” trends that have largely dominated Asian genre cinema for the past 15 or so years (as my forthcoming review of I Saw the Devil will touch more deeply on). But I dug the shit out of Dream Home. This is a fucked up movie, in all the best ways. And I mean fucked up. The cold-open perfectly sets the tone for the horror elements in the rest of the film, which is dark comedy so pitch black it routinely steps over the line and stops being funny, only to come back to comedy again eventually. When a snoozing security guard has a plastic binding (the kind cops sometimes use in place of handcuffs) ever so slowly lowered over his head, then snapped tight, it at first elicits twisted chuckles. Then, when the guard, unable to remove the binding squeezing off his air-flow, starts trying to cut the plastic with a box cutter, repeatedly gouging his own neck, things stop being so funny and just become horrifying.
The sequence that probably best encapsulates the film’s precarious balancing act between dark comedy and gruesome savagery, is when our anti-hero breaks into the apartment of a pregnant woman. The sequence features a comedy high when Cheng Lai answers her phone to talk to the man she’s having an affair with, while still trying to continue on with her Slasher duties. Director Ho-Cheung Pang executes the moment with Coen Bros silly-serious flair. But this sequence also features the film’s most brutal moment of cinematic sadism, when the pregnant woman’s bloody amniotic fluid leaks out onto the floor after a violent fall. Not much funny about that. But this isn’t Shaun of the Dead. Laughs are not the sole goal.
Fans of gory mayhem will have a lot of wallow in here, and I haven’t even mentioned the film’s pièce de résistance, a prolonged killing sequence featuring some horny party kids, that reaches truly awesome heights of gonzo insanity. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just leave it at that. But this sequence alone would probably make the film worth seeing for Slasher fans. What makes Dream Home a step above mere gore filler, is how Ho-Cheung Pang handles the none-horror portions of the film (of which there are a lot).
The opening credits were actually one of my favorite aspects of the film. In a montage of seaside, downtown Hong Kong, Ho-Cheung presents the city as a soul-crushing urban jungle of high-rise apartment complexes, with over-passes snaking through the sprawl, mere feet from the buildings themselves. And the footage is shot using tilt-shift lensing tricks, which gives everything that weird look of being a miniature. This only adds to the mind-numbing urban desolation, as it removes any sense of spectacle that might otherwise come with the monstrous size of these buildings. The film uses this tilt-shift technique through the film for establishing shots and bumpers, which gives everything a weird tone before we enter the scenes, almost like we’re in a strange non-reality.
Cheng Lai is certainly a unique “hero.” We see her do terrible, terrible things, and aren’t given much reason to respect her. While we may sympathize a bit when seeing her pawed and used for cheap sex in her on-going relationship with a married business man, we certainly don’t extend her much pathos. I mean, she’s facilitating an affair after all. All-in-all, the woman seems a miserable figure. Yet, through the twisted powers of cinema, we find ourselves rooting for her nonetheless. We like heroes who are good at things, and while Cheng Lai doesn’t seem very good at living her life, she proves incredibly skilled at one thing: killing people. And knowing the ludicrous motives behind her killings just serves to make them inherently funnier, even when things get truly brutal. The film also ends with a fantastic button gag that all but demands a cartoon sad trombone music cue.
This is the kind of film that is never going to get a theatrical run in America, which is too bad, because most Slasher fans will surely like (if not love) the film. Definitely recommend. Though certainly beware – not for the faint of heart, gore-wise.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars