Home ownership is not a new subject for the movies. In horror, for example, the haunted house is one of the most well established and popular sub-genres. But there are precious few movies about the horror of actually buying a house. Most likely because people carping on about house prices is deathly boring to anyone in their right mind. However, Pang Ho-Cheung’s Dream Home (Wai dor lei ah yut ho, 2010) avoids the supernatural staples and fusty evening news economics and opts instead for a far more realistic and terrifying approach – the prospect of never owning a home at all. The slow build anxiety of being in your early 30s with family pressures, a lousy social life and a shit job, pressure cooking inside you until something has to blow. And in Dream Home’s case, that’s Cheng Lai-sheung (Josie Ho) quietly blowing her stack and going on a bloody rampage.
Fully committed to its Category III status (the Hong Kong classification for adult-rated films), Dream Home is a grisly slasher movie that also decides to take a pot shot at the rampantly out of control property market and the saturating ennui of big city life. On the one hand, we might expect the pompous ‘elevated horror’ label to get tacked on to Dream Home since it’s got something to say for itself. But on the other hand, it’s just a good old fashioned psycho killer movie with one foot in the exploitation camp and the other in darkly comic satire. In order to have a good crack this, some spoilers lie ahead, so please be fairly warned.
Cheng Lai-sheung (Josie Ho) has a dream. Ever since childhood, she has wanted to own a waterfront property, close to where she grew up and with a view of the ocean that her beloved grandfather was so fond of. In pursuit of this dream, and to the detriment of much of the rest of her life, she works two jobs, in a bank and in a shoe store. Both jobs are unsatisfying and in order to save for a home, she rarely joins her friends when they go out. Cheng Lai-sheung is casually dating a married man who, unsurprisingly, treats her poorly, and her father is seriously ill. As everything seemingly conspires against her, the pressure eventually proves too much and she embarks on a savage killing spree in her desired building. Intending to drive down the property price to a more affordable level.
The preamble would have us believe Dream Home is based on true events, but the reality is smoke and mirrors on the writers’ part, as director Pang Ho-Cheung later confessed it to be a work of fiction. The story unfolds with a bit of hopping around the timeline, and Dream Home has copped a bit of criticism for its pacing. In fairness, things do seem confusing at first, but once you cotton on to how it’s playing out, the narrative works pretty well to ensure the film isn’t bogged down by its slower expository sections. There’s an equal distribution of gory set pieces and plot detail, as severed fingers go flying and death-by-bong is administered to a hapless tenant before the movie leaps back in time to give us some context.
Dream Home does not hold back on the violence and it goes to places some folk will certainly find unsavoury. There are certain points where it gets very nasty, and no more so than the opening half hour, but it is very effective at what it does. With the black humour at work here, the outrageousness of it means we never take things too seriously.
Dream Home was the first movie for Josie Ho’s production company 852 Films. Ho says the creation of the film was fun and a lot of the crew were old friends, describing many of the production meetings as like a jamming session, as they figured out how best to make the script work. Despite this congenial atmosphere, things appeared to turn sour upon completion of filming, with arguments reported between 852 Films and Pang Ho-Cheung and legal action afoot over the final cut of the movie. That old chestnut ‘creative differences’ raised its hand as the reason behind it all, but by the time Dream Home was finally released in 2010 the acrimony appeared to be behind them. In a 2011 interview with joblo.com, Pang Ho-Cheung chalked it up to inexperience on 852 Films part and claimed the final cut was his.
Josie Ho states that although Dream Home is set in Hong Kong, it is a globally relatable story which anyone living in a big city can identify with. Ho is correct with her contention, as the out-of-control property market is not a problem exclusive to Hong Kong. If anything, in the decade since Dream Home’s initial release, the problem of affordable housing has only intensified. Major cities the world over are struggling with a market that has no entry point for the young, or those without significant financial back up. With a generation coming to terms with the painful fact they may never own their own home, Dream Home resonates more today than ever.
It is worth pointing out that there is a certain irony to a movie about escalating property prices and the trampling of the ‘ordinary person’, being created by the heir to a billion dollar casino fortune. Josie Ho’s father is business mogul Stanley Ho, known as the ‘King of Gambling’ and former President of the Real Estate Developers Association of Hong Kong. So from a production standpoint, Dream Home is either a sublime act of personal rebellion, or an acute case of cognitive dissonance, depending on how charitably you want to interpret it. In a 2010 interview with dazeddigital.com, Ho does seem to support Dream Home as a reaction to her upbringing, stating “I don’t like the reality I grew up in” .
Ho’s inspiration to produce a horror movie (aside from the genre’s traditionally impressive box office performance) was Lam Nai-Choi’s berserk martial arts / action movie Riki-Oh: The Story Of Riki (1991), a truly deranged and gonzo piece of fight cinema, with a singular and tunnel visioned dedication to violence, gore and audience provocation. ‘Inspirational’ is probably not the first word to leap to mind when we think of The Story of Riki, but it is a pretty exceptional choice nonetheless.
Pang Ho-Cheung is a little more opaque in citing his own inspirations. But he was definitely on the same page as Ho from the get-go, telling the Hollywood Reporter in 2009 that “Hollywood’s B-grade movies” provided the muse for Dream Home’s slasher/psycho killer baseline.
With its uncompromising violence, underlying social commentary and strong female protagonist, Dream Home shares common ground with the films of the New French Extremity. As Cheng Lai-sheung commits her first savage home invasion, turning up at the door of a businessman’s home and brutalising his pregnant wife, Dream Home lets us know in bloodily unsubtle fashion, that nobody is safe. With shades of Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension (Switchblade Romance / High Tension, 2003), it also reminds us of Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s À l’intérieur (Inside, 2007), an utterly gobsmacking horror debut also featuring a solitary pregnant woman facing off against a vicious home invader.
Interestingly, Dream Home is very much the killer’s story. Comparable in a way to exploitation grot like Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (1986), or Maniac (1980 / 2012), in that the audience accompanies a killer as they go about their grim deeds. But it also gives us more humanity than those pictures. Like Falling Down (1993) or God Bless America (2011), we get a character pushed to their limits by society and driven to extremes by the injustice of everyday life.
Instead of making us loathe our central character, Josie Ho’s performance, makes us sympathise with Cheng Lai-sheung. Not to the extent that we agree with suffocating or disembowelling the innocent, of course, so to call her an anti-hero is stretching it a bit, but we can certainly identify to the degree that we understand why Cheng Lai-sheung finally snaps. We can empathize with her and the weary life she endures, saving up for an apartment and caring for her father, but ultimately getting hit from every direction by an uncaring boyfriend, greedy real estate companies and callous insurance conglomerates. Cheng Lai-sheung is punished for trying to do the right thing, so the audience is on her side because we’ve all felt, at one time or another, that society’s rules are stacked against the ‘ordinary’ person.
Another interesting thing to note about Dream Home is that there is no comeuppance for Cheng Lai-sheung. From a traditional good vs evil perspective, she gets away with it all. So what is Dream Home’s moral in all this? That two wrongs do make a right? That the only true way to succeed and get what you want is by brute force? Is it a satirical indictment, like American Psycho (2002), on capitalism’s absent humanity? With Cheng Lai-sheung’s psychopathy mirroring the larger world, in an amoral society there is no right or wrong, only that which you can and cannot get away with.
Dream Home premiered at the 2010 Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy, where audience members were dropping like flies. The final count standing at one fainter and two lunch losers. Such claims are often exaggerated for eager publicity, but they never hurt the reputation of a horror film. Patrons emptying their stomach contents is a badge of honour and there is, after all, a very good reason why the barf bag is such a beloved gimmick and coveted horror souvenir. Dream Home went on to screen at the Tribeca Film Festival, Fantasia Festival and London Fright Fest. It also picked up a couple of awards, for Best Make Up FX and Best Actress, at the Sitges Film Festival the same year.
Pang Ho-Cheung and Josie Ho wanted to make a film that would shock their audience. They wanted to make a violent psycho killer movie specifically to alarm Hong Kong, and when all is said and done, it would be fair to say they accomplished their mission. Despite a few bumps along the way and a post-production plagued by ill feeling and threats of legal action, Dream Home came out the other side as a bloody, warped and darkly comedic take on the pressures of buying your first home.