Tuesday, January 4, 2011

THE EAST IS RED #18: Just Be Glad You Don’t Live in Hong Kong

by Lisa Morton

One horror sub-genre that’s almost missing in Asian film is the slasher. For whatever reason, the preferred American horror flick of the ‘80s (and its European cousin, the giallo) never really caught on in the east, despite a brief flirtation in early ‘90s Hong Kong cinema with gruesome true crime dramatizations (chief among them THE UNTOLD STORY, starring Anthony Wong in a career-making performance as a serial killer who carved up and cooked his victims into tasty buns), and the occasional oddball item like South Korea’s 2006 thriller BLOODY REUNION. South Korea’s made a number of thrillers that are close (TELL ME SOMETHING, H: THE MOVIE), Japan flirted with Argento style in flicks like EVIL DEAD TRAP, and they’ve all produced ghost movies and vampire movies and zombie movies…but true slashers have been few and far between.
Welllll…let’s just say Pang Ho-cheung’s 2010 release DREAM HOME more than makes up for the dearth. Possibly the single bloodiest Hong Kong movie ever made, DREAM HOME will likely make slasher fans not just nostalgic for the glory days of the ‘80s, but forget them in the wake of something smarter, sicker, more subversive, and (for the most part) better.
Pang is a writer/director I’ve admired for nearly a decade. His earlier black comedies YOU SHOOT, I SHOOT (2001) and BEYOND OUR KEN (2004) were clever, edgy, small-budget gems; although it’s perhaps no surprise that Pang – who also wrote the original novel FULLTIME KILLER, which served as the basis for Johnnie To’s 2001 film of the same title – would direct a slasher movie, what is surprising is just how far he’s gone with it. DREAM HOME received a Category III rating (Hong Kong’s equivalent of X or NC-17), and reportedly even that was proffered only after the film was cut down (dear God, there was even MORE blood?!).
The plot also wouldn’t seem to lead down the road to excess: It centers on Sheung, a hard-working young woman whose whole life has been spent in pursuit of the dream of buying her parents a better home. Sheung, who works two thankless jobs and takes care of her family, has promised them a flat with an ocean view, but as housing costs rise, so do Sheung’s troubles. After her ill father finally dies, Sheung receives an insurance payout that she believes will allow her to finally purchase her eponymous dream home, but when the owners abruptly change their mind, Sheung loses it and goes on a murderous rampage against the decadent elite occupying some of the luxury flats in the same building.

That synopsis, however, can’t begin to do justice to DREAM HOME’s intriguing structure and editing style. Rather than tell the story in linear fashion, Pang has chosen to intercut present – as Sheung carves a bloody swath through several flats - with past both distant and recent. The film opens with the first murder – as Sheung garrots a security guard with a plastic tie-off, which he then tries to cut off his own neck (and you can probably guess how well THAT goes) – but then flashes back to a few weeks earlier, showing Sheung at her dull-as-dishwater job as a banking telemarketer, then flashes back to her childhood, as we learn why the ocean view later comes to be so central to her obsessions. Pang not only keeps this jagged editing surprisingly smooth and fast (DREAM HOME clocks in at a swift 96 minutes), but he also uses it to garner sympathy for Sheung even as we watch her commit ferocious acts of mayhem. No film since TAXI DRIVER has painted such a complex portrait of a psychotic, and unlike TAXI DRIVER’s Travis Bickle, Sheung is never shown as completely gone – she doesn’t talk to herself, she doesn’t roll her eyes or laugh maniacally or twitch or glory in bloodshed. Pang also sets up the victims as detestable and has them fight back, forcing Sheung to act in self-defense on more than one occasion.
And then of course there’s the presence and performance of lead actress Josie Ho. Ho has been one of Hong Kong’s most interesting and underrated actresses since her breakout performance in the 1999 action thriller PURPLE STORM. She’s stolen movies like THE TWINS EFFECT and HOUSE OF FURY with small but simmering roles, and DREAM HOME (which Ho co-produced) finally gives her the spotlight. She’s simply perfect as Sheung, capturing both the dowdy workaholic who lets her boyfriend (played by pop star Eason Chan) walk all over her, and the vengeful fury who’s finally had enough. DREAM HOME is Ho’s movie, and she runs with it like a champ.
Okay, okay – so enough about how well acted and how beautifully made DREAM HOME is…let’s hear more about the gore.
Holy crap.

Pang’s borrowed slightly from Argento in making his victims incredibly difficult to kill; these people can be hacked to bits and manage to take a swing at Sheung (who indeed does not emerge unscathed herself). One guy has four fingers lopped off and is disemboweled, but sits there in his own guts lighting a last joint. One woman has her head smashed repeatedly against a toilet bowl until she breaks the damn toilet. One copulating couple…oh no, I’m not giving that one away. Suffice to say that DREAM HOME’s remarkable gore simply must be seen to be believed. The effects are for the most part top-notch and razor-sharp, and I lost count of how many times I howled in astonishment.
DREAM HOME is subversive on other levels, too (certainly the excessive gore takes it into that realm). By never painting Sheung as overtly nutty, it suggests that her response to a rapidly-devolving global economy is completely rational. Sheung also seems to find her own inner strength from her rampage; certainly this version of Sheung would never perform oral sex on her selfish boyfriend only to have him turn down her request for a loan. Murder as empowerment? Killing as a justified means of climbing the social ladder? As reward for a lifetime of hard work and disappointment? Yep, DREAM HOME dares to go to all of those places and more.

Fortunately DREAM HOME has been acquired by an American arthouse distributor (Fortissimo Films) and will be given a 2011 release (although I can only hope they’ll opt to let the film go out with an X or NC-17 rating rather than cut it down). Certainly it can be viewed as one of global cinema’s most scathing non-documentary depictions of the economic meltdown, so it’s no surprise that it’s been scoring at film festivals and arthouse venues…but it’s the undeniable, visceral rush of Sheung’s rampage that will ultimately supercharge the film’s audiences. As rushes go, DREAM HOME’s is pretty damned intense.

--Lisa Morton