Monday, August 22, 2011

Strange Films I've Seen: DREAM HOME

I'm no scholar of Hong Kong cinema, but I love gory films and pride myself on my resilience to even the most brutal out there (see my shocking films post for evidence). With this in mind, I believe Pang Ho-cheung's Dream Home is the bloodiest to come out of Hong Kong since Lam Nai-choi's notorious martial arts splatterfest Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky. But where that one floated on ultraviolent absurdity, Pang maintains a focused dread of a relentless (if bungling) slasher. It is set amid Hong Kong's real estate boom, with a backdrop of glittering new condo towers like the Victoria No. 1 (the literal Cantonese title, and the basis of much of the action) replacing the old ramshackle residences. Actual 2007 footage from protestors against the demolition of Queen's Pier add factual topicality to this feature. It's beautifully, slickly shot and boasts a LOT of practical effects (and is seemingly devoid of CGI gruesomeness). Despite the post-production delays — specifically a legal dispute b/w the director and production studio 852 Films, co-founded by Dream Home's lead and anti-hero Josie Ho — it finally debuted in spring of 2010, after America's housing bust, perhaps foreshadowing the unhappiness in store for the lead's own imperfect "dream home". But I am getting ahead of myself.

The film begins around midnight of October 2007 (dates are important, as much of the story's "modus", besides the full-out assault and murder, is told in flashbacks) in the security room of the Victoria No. 1. A security guard is nodding off and wakes up with a start when a nylon tie-strap is zipped around his throat. What follows is a lengthy, exhausting, grisly death, as he thrashes about, his leather shoes scuttling the marble floor, his fingers unable to get beneath the nylon band's grip. He grapples for a tool kit overhead (the camera shoots this from above, showing the dark-clothed perpetrator — Josie Ho — just out of view, watching him struggle), produces an X-Acto blade, and them proceeds to saw at the nylon tie, and eventually his own throat, severing his jugular or some major artery that pistons blackening blood out as he finally drops dead. The duration of his death and Pang's unwavering camera sets the tone: this ain't your regular slasher film. If Ho's ensuing violence followed this murder in realtime order, we'd have like an hour-long film of unyielding, improbably bloodshed. Lots and lots of killin' with seemingly no reason. Hence the director's many flashbacks, to Ho's daily life as the bank-teller drone Sheung (advising clients into debt, a deed she is notably averse to), meeting up with her married boyfriend at love hotels for a little respite while she saves up for this big new apartment.

And why the new apartment? The film pulls back further, to her childhood and teen years in a matchbox-sized flat across Victoria Harbor, alongside a younger brother, doting mom, distant construction-worker dad, and a grandfather pining for the harbor. Her best friend is this kid Jimmy in a complex across the way, and they communicate w/ string and cans (signing off with "over", or later "asshole" — a word he picked up from his father's name for sharky new developers) until Jimmy and his family are kicked out of their flat, a building targeted for razing and new condos. We see Sheung as an adult, looking after her now ailing father (suffering from some pneumonia-related illness, aggravated by his years breathing asbestos on construction sites) in a similar tiny flat, saving her pithy paychecks so that she and old dad can relocate someplace more comfortable, i.e. Victoria No. 1. That she's screwed over by bank loans and her father's medical insurance — and ultimately the old couple selling their harbor-view flat, who pull out last minute — adds desperation and heart to what Sheung's about to do…killing and killing to drive down the flat's value exponentially. But boy, does she ever go for it.

So that's the backstory in broad gloss. Back to present day, a young bourgeoisie woman's Skyping with her girlfriend about her husband's frequent golf trips to China (she hopes he's not cheating on her) as her Filipina maid vacuum-seals stacks of clothing for a business trip and potters about in the kitchen. Sheung breaks in, wearing her dad's old tool-belt laden with creative household weapons, and quickly dispatches the maid with eye-popping aplomb. Out comes bourgeoisie woman, terrifically pregnant and hysterical, and Sheung chases after her. Thus ensues undoubtedly the most disturbing (and blogged about) kill in the film, as Sheung eventually overpowers her — she crashes to the floor face-first, causing irreparable harm to her belly — ties her feet and wrists with nylon bands, pulls a bag over her head, secures that with another tie, and then vacuum-seals the air out of the bag. As much as I winced watching the security guard knife his own throat, attempting to remove the nylon band pressing against his skin, I could barely stand this lengthy suffocation: the pregnant woman writhing on the floor, blood pouring out of her womb, her face distorted beneath shiny translucent plastic as the vacuum's roar concealed her screams. A notable instance here is that Sheung is injured, like a two-inch-long flesh wound on her cheek courtesy the pregnant woman. It's the first of many "blips" in her rampage and again lends some humanism (if you can get around the carnage) to the slasher genre. As in next, when pregnant woman's cheatin' husband returns home, literally like five minutes later, golf-bag on his back. He's just ended a call with his Chinese girlfriend, chastising her for calling him again but promising he'll be back with her, soon as his wife has the baby. He walks into the darkened flat and steps on an eyeball.

Sheung lucks out here, in that the no-good husband attacks and chokes her, and it's only in his rage as they tumble about the flat that he breaks his neck on a poorly aimed tackle that she escapes relatively unscathed. The booming music emanating from the flat upstairs jolts her out a momentary panic and extreme blood-lusting mania. She can't have an idyllic new flat with noisy neighbors! The kids upstairs are having a bit of a bash: two presumably roommate dudes and their hot girl dates. Guys are talking drugs and basically date-rape while the girls make out with each other, until one's too nauseous to continue. The other leads one dude into the bedroom while other dude receives his blue mohawk'ed friend Blondie ("Whassup bitches!" they greet one another, and then comes Sheung. The dudes' purported orgy of sex and pharmaceuticals quickly morphs into an orgy of blood and viscera, as Sheung guts Blondie — performing a much-needed comedic element here, puffing at a spent joint as he sprawls against the wall, his guts spilling onto the floor — and forces her way inside. Kills become more creative (one guy gets a glass bong shoved into his throat, funneling blood into its bowled base; the nauseous girl has her head forced into a vomit-filled toilet, shattering the porcelain and her face simultaneously) as Sheung proceeds further into the dudes' claustrophobic flat. She stabs the other dude mid-coitus and, after struggling with the other girl and getting knifed in the ankle, shoves a broken off wood slat from the bedframe into the girl's mouth. I'm not even going to bother posting a photo of this horrifically clever kill. You look hard enough, you'll find a shot of a cute girl with a board protruding out her jaw. Then the cops show up, due to a "loud music" disturbance. Guess what happens next?

Oh yeah, the beginning of Dream Home states this is based on a true story.