REVIEW: Dream Home (2010)

Cheng Li-sheung (Josie Ho) is a Hong Kong professional desperate to purchase her dream apartment. When the owners abruptly increase the price, she violently takes matters into her own hands.

Pang Ho-cheung is a well-regarded writer/director for his acclaimed Love trilogy of comedies, which kicked off with Love in a Puff back in 2010. The same year he also directed Dream Home, a striking but muddled thriller starring Josie Ho. It marks a sharp contrast from his comedic work, and boasts an awful lot of creative assets. The photography and production design are great, particularly with the unsettling use of tilt-shift photography to make the various Hong Kong street and harbour scenes look like children’s toys. It centres on a fine lead performance by Josie Ho. The violent horror sequences are inventive and bold. The development of social satire elements help the film make a strong comment on the growing price of Hong Kong real estate. Flashbacks tie the story in very well to local history, and give it a powerful sense of place. All that is missing, to be honest, is anything to actually tie all of these elements together. It simply does not feel like a cohesive film, but rather selected scenes from at least three different films all thrown in together.

The basic concept is marvellously bleak and ripe for a strong black comedy treatment: a woman screwed over by rising real estate prices takes it upon herself to murder the occupants of all of the apartments surrounding the one she wants to buy. By doing so she lowers the property value to make her titular ‘dream home’ an affordable one. That is a genius concept for a movie, and it is in the execution of that concept that Pang struggles.

For one thing, the murder scenes are extremely strong in tone and content. It’s not just that blood is liberally spilled. People are shot, stabbed, disembowelled, castrated, strangled, bludgeoned and impaled. There is not a great amount left to the imagination. One scene involving a pregnant murder victim goes beyond entertaining excess and into an altogether more unpleasant and near-unwatchable territory. Overall it feels badly misjudged. There is an attempt made at black comedy, but it is misdirected and fails to amuse. Fans of gore will find a lot to enjoy, but it does all feel as if it’s inserted from the wrong movie.

The problem is compounded by the remainder of the film, which goes out of its way to form a sympathetic portrayal of Li-sheung’s plight. That is a near-impossible task, because she’s demonstrably a horrible person. She murders 11 people to drive property prices down. She murders her own terminally ill father to save the money on medical bills and afford her mortgage deposit. Pang asks us to like her, but it’s an impossible proposition. There is simply nothing about her to like. Had the film embraced her vile nature, it would have worked as a dark comedy. Instead Pang tries to sell comedy, horror and drama at the same time. The film then fails on all three counts. How could it not? It is set up from the outset to work against itself.

As noted above, there is plenty of individual merit on a scene-by-scene basis. Josie Ho’s performance as Li-sheung is strong and engaging, and surprisingly effective given how aggressively the script is fighting against her. In the end, however, it’s nothing but a frustrating challenge. Dream Home could be a great comedy, or thriller, or drama, but to do that Pang would have to pick one film to make.

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