The horror of climbing the property ladder
Hong Kong slasher flick Dream Home treads an intriguing but ultimately unsuccessful path between satire and sadism.
The new film from Hong Kong director Pang Ho-Cheung, Dream Home, depicts the unsettling descent into madness of a seemingly ordinary young woman as she endeavours to secure the sea-view apartment of her childhood dreams. But this is a far cry from Grand Designs. Despondency and desperation at a stressful, overworked lifestyle, Hong Kong’s ever-rising house prices and her insufficient savings prove so overwhelming that her sanity begins to wane, and she ventures down a more direct, murderous route to reach her goal.
With its satirical portrayal of Hong Kong’s booming property market, and the extraordinary lengths to which aspiring owners will go to get on the ladder, this film is a neat piece of social commentary. But that is perhaps not how most viewers will remember Dream Home. For it is also a protracted exercise in bestial, blood-soaked horror likely to repulse all but the most strong-stomached of the genre’s veterans. This incongruous mix of styles is the reason that the film ultimately fails to impress.
Pang leaves us with no doubt from the outset that this is not a film for the faint-hearted. The camera pans down myriad empty corridors, before settling on the face of a dozing security guard. A mysterious dark figure looms over him, a cord is slipped round his neck and he is brutally garroted from behind. Any impression that this is just another Bond-style action film is quickly dispelled; we watch, transfixed and helpless, as the guard writhes and splutters on the floor for what seems an eternity, hacking frantically at his neck with a knife in a vain attempt to release himself. He finally succumbs, falling back into a pool of crimson.
This sets the tone for later butchery, scenes of which are interspersed through the main narrative, set several years previously. It transpires early on that quiet, unassuming young telemarketer Cheung Lai-sheung is the perpetrator, but her motives are as yet unclear. The film relates her day-to-day trials, and as she grapples with two part-time jobs, a callous, terminally ill father, an uncaring partner and dwindling chances of obtaining her dream home, we gradually uncover the rationale for the killing spree on which she will later embark.
Underpinning Dream Home is an artful tension between our sympathy for this cute, hard-working idealist and our revulsion at the savage, merciless psychopath she becomes. A clear part of Cheung’s appeal is the determined, Gatsby-esque aspiration and innocence that her profound desire to realise a childhood dream reveals.
This stands in distinct contrast with the depraved, hedonistic Hong Kong metropolis around her that Pang adroitly depicts. In a particularly telling scene, as she waits patiently in a hotel room for her partner, she can find only porn on the television as she flicks through the channels. Her lover is an arrogant and reckless alcoholic; while she saves her wages her friends plan to blow them on a wild weekend in Tokyo; her victims include three coke-snorting, bling-sporting young men attempting to sleep with a delirious, topless girl half-asleep on their sofa.
However, our fragile bond with Cheung is increasingly hard to sustain as the film progresses and victim after innocent victim falls at her hands. Insofar as these killings are a form of satire, a dramatic representation of the desperate pursuit of real estate in Hong Kong, they seem acceptable to the audience. The needlessly brutal nature of their execution, though, is hardly justifiable on these grounds, and will strike most viewers as utterly repulsive, perplexing and gratuitous. We can just about understand, if not accept, Cheung’s decision not to pass her dying father his ventilator as he struggles for air. Her asphyxiation of a pregnant woman, by the ingenious use of a plastic bag and vacuum cleaner, and her severance of a young man’s genitalia, however, fall well beyond the realm of comprehension.
It can only be concluded that in Pang’s excitement at his first film venture into the world of horror, a sense of proportion was the unfortunate casualty. My suspicion is that for those in search of the astute social analysis for which Pang is renowned, the relentless carnage may ruin Dream Home. For the faint-hearted or even average viewer, the blood and guts may simply prove so shocking and sickening as to obscure all other merit in the film. Even for those more able to comfortly stomach the gore, it could easily seem rather puerile, and its recurrence throughout may prove too great a distraction. Conversely, horror fans might find the film too bogged down by backstory, as impressive as the special effects may be.
If you’re one of that select group for whom a large dose of senseless, grisly bloodshed and a moderate sprinkling of intelligent social observation makes compelling viewing, go and see Dream Home right away. If you’re a normal human being, however, probably best not to bother.
Tom Belger is a former spiked intern.
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