(2010) Directed by Ho-Cheung Pang; Written by: Ho-Cheung Pang, Kwok Cheung Tsang and Chi-Man Wan; Story by: Ho-Cheung Pang; Starring: Josie Ho, Juno Mak, Eason Chan and Norman Chu; Available on DVD.
Rating: *** ½
“Do we need to kill certain kinds of people in order to possess our own property? That made me think of this story.” – Ho-Cheung Pang (from the documentary The Making of: Building Your Dream Home)
What would you do to own the perfect living space? Quite a lot, according to director/producer-co-writer Ho-Cheung Pang’s Dream Home. This satirical urban horror story employs Grand Guignol-style imagery and pitch black humor to chronicle the plight of its protagonist and her quest for a piece of the real estate pie. The film begins with a few statistics about rising home prices in Hong Kong relative to the average salary, setting the stage for the drastic measures the main character takes into her hands. A caption informs us this is based on a true story, although how much is true and how much fabrication is open for debate.
True story or not, Ho-Cheung Pang attributed the idea for Dream Home to his personal experience not being able to purchase a home. His film takes a dim view of the entitled class – men are philanderers and their women put up with it, choosing to look the other way in order to maintain their comfortable lifestyle. The other homeowners depicted in the film are drug-addled, over-pampered 20-something slackers. It’s not too difficult to imagine the cathartic thrill he experienced, as these individuals get their just desserts (at least by one character’s reckoning).
Josie Ho is consistently engaging in her role as borderline psychopath Cheng Lai – Sheung, who commits terrible, unforgivable acts, yet is impossible to hate. She dreams of one day being able to afford a high-rise condominium with an ocean view, but it remains agonizingly out of reach. She works two jobs: as a telemarketer by day and a salesperson in a retail boutique by night. Meanwhile, her personal life is going nowhere. She doesn’t have the time or money to socialize with her co-workers, and is involved in a loveless relationship with a married man. After spending her formative years in a Hong Kong slum where her neighbors and family members were driven out of their homes to make way for upscale developments, she strives to save up enough money to put a down payment on her own home. Meanwhile, her father is dying from a form of lung disease – the result of decades of inhaling toxic materials from construction work. She’s pushed over the edge after she attempts to purchase her dream home, and the seller retracts his offer. When she finally snaps, it’s the cumulative effect of years of toiling away for little money and enduring continual disappointment.
Is it nature or nurture that creates a sociopath? Dream House seems to favor the latter, as we witness the seeds of resentment germinate during Cheng Lai – Sheung’s childhood. She grows up in an atmosphere where it’s impossible to get ahead. The privileged remain privileged, and the poor stay down, perpetuating a cycle of deprivation and animosity. The filmmakers suggest that Hong Kong’s changeover to Chinese rule hasn’t improved the living situation for many residents, but instead widened the chasm between the haves and have-nots. This divide only serves to enable a society where it’s impossible to rise up without stepping on whoever stands in your way. In the case of the protagonist, she commits a series of gruesome murders (brought to life with gory makeup effects by Andrew Lin) in order to secure her version of the future. The unflinching depictions of violence, particularly an assault on a pregnant woman, might be too much for some to take (a few times, I was tempted to check out), but co-writer/director Ho-Cheung Pang has a larger purpose. For many people, home ownership represents the pinnacle of success and prosperity – a goal that is steadily becoming out of reach. For a select few, nothing is out of bounds if it means the attainment of that goal.
With its dark humor and blood-spattered imagery, Dream Home isn’t tailored to everyone’s taste. But if you stick with it, and accept its over-the-top violence, you may come to appreciate the very human dilemma at its core. While most of us would hopefully never resort to the extreme behaviors perpetrated by Cheng Lai – Sheung, we can at least identify with her on some level, and her frustrations about life’s inequities. If you accept the film’s twisted premise, you might be horrified to find yourself rooting for her on some level, as a spontaneous mutation in the social-Darwinist scheme.