A touching story about following your heart, and finding where you truly belong.
Sheung grew up in a small, cramped apartment in a poor and noisy section of Hong Kong, with little to call her own. What she did have, though, was her family and Jesus. Like many living in Hong Kong, she had to share a bedroom with her younger brother, which sometimes lead to tension, but not always. We first see her as a child, she and her younger brother are talking with her friend Jimmy through paper-cup telephones across the street before she is called to get her grandfather. Her grandfather had been a sailor who loved looking out at the sea from the nearby harbor. So when the possibility of having to move comes up, Sheung prays that their apartment can have a window with a sea view so that her grandfather would not have to walk to the harbor every day.
The reason for the talk of moving is that property developers are in league with some shady groups (probably organized crime), harassing people into leaving so that they can build fancier, more expensive buildings. We do not see these attackers save for a few scenes, but we do see the effects and signs of public anger against both them and against the government for doing little. Jimmy tells Sheung that they have cut the electricity in his apartment and dropped in snakes. Sheung takes back her prayer for a sea view and prays that Jimmy does not have to leave. But it does no good. Not only does Jimmy’s family leave, but the building is torn down and replaced with something huge. At least, though, Sheung and her family do not have to move.
Presumably (we do not see it and there is no talk of it), Sheung’s grandfather dies when she is young, so Sheung transforms her childhood wish for a sea view for her grandfather into a wish for a better apartment for her mother. She decides to skip university in order to get a job and help the family immediately. Unfortunately, it never gets her the apartment. At her mother’s funeral a few years later, Sheung is most remorseful about the promise that she could not keep.
It is a few years after her mother’s death, and Sheung is working two jobs…well, three. The first main job is working the phones at a bank, trying to arrange loans for customers and perhaps getting into a shady money-lending scheme with her coworkers. The second job is selling fancy handbags for people who are much richer than she is. The third…job…is as a mistress for a married man. All of these things eat at her soul and may not actually be all that worth it financially. But while everyone else has been wasting their money on conspicuous consumption and partying, she has been saving up all that she can to buy an apartment in that building next door. It is unclear how much of her lifestyle she has sacrificed to save up enough money, but it must be quite a bit.
Sheung eventually finds an apartment with a sea view and individual rooms for herself, her brother, and her father. She brings her brother along to look at it. She has not made a decision yet, but it seems perfect for her. And she hopes that she can move her family into it soon. Her father, though, is sick. His illness is not covered by the insurance purchased for him. With the people in her life, particularly the men, unable to truly help her and her life starting to crumble, she has to take matters into her own hands. In doing so, Sheung has to decide what is truly important: her family or her dream home.
Now, before I go further, I just want to provide a little bit of context to the housing situation in Hong Kong. While there are some very high class mini-apartments for well-off singles, here is a video of two women living in a less-classy apartment.
For even less classy, there are cages.
I would guess that the movie could have maybe had Sheung’s family live in either of these locations had they been easy to film around. In any case, Hong Kong audiences probably know about this stuff.
This movie is a fascinating study of how some childhood desires never truly leave us. We all probably have dreams and interests that date back to our childhood, but they sometimes end up evolving into something totally different from their origins in terms of what they mean to us. Sheung initially prays for a window with a sea view so that she did not have to walk to the harbor to get her grandfather. It is both selfish and selfless. After all, she will not have to walk, but neither will her grandfather. Once her grandfather dies, her dream of a new home extends to the rest of her family, but also includes the desire to have a room of her own and still has the need for a sea view. Eventually, it becomes clear that her childhood wish has become a personal obsession separate from her obligations to her family. Does Sheung even remember why she wanted a sea view sixteen years later or does she simply think of it as a promise that she has made that must be fulfilled? Sometimes, it is easy to follow traditions to the letter while forgetting the good intentions behind them or the actual ways of doing them. Maybe there comes a time when one has to say goodbye to the good of the past before it leads to the ruin of the future.
The issue of status and the consequences of seeking higher status is an important part of this film. Showing off one’s money by throwing it around wastefully is one way in Chinese culture of exhibiting wealth, even if it is illusory. That is what Sheung’s coworkers do. Sheung seems to be too prudent to waste her money on frivolous fun, but is her wish any less foolish? Everyone else thinks that it is actually more foolish. For Sheung, her obsession with a better apartment related to her desire to not be poor anymore. While there are signs throughout the movie that getting that apartment will not be easy or ultimately worth it, it becomes a symbol of her plight and her upward struggle. All that she puts herself through will be for nothing if she does not achieve her goal. So she pours her heart and her efforts into it. Her need for it is so overwhelming that when her father becomes sick, she is reluctant to use the money that she had been saving up for the apartment to pay for his medical bills. She gets called out on this, but still does not immediately come around.
In pursuing that symbol of status, she herself becomes a status symbol in the form of a mistress. The married man who carries on an affair with her turns out to not be the only rich man carrying on an affair, and a somewhat dark joke is that the wives cynically accept such arrangements and pretend to be ignorant of them. In this world, men have the power and it almost seems not worth it to get one’s hopes up that they will not let you down somehow. So sometimes, you just have to decide for yourself what is right and good. And that can be more difficult than it seems.
This movie has received some criticism for its abrupt and unsubtle shifts in tone, with people complaining that certain parts of the movie undermine the other parts or that the movie cannot decide what it wants to be. Some have complained that it can be quite difficult to wish for Sheung to succeed, with a few actively rooting against her at times. I can understand that. It can be difficult to reconcile some of the lighter and more innocent segments with the slightly darker and morally questionable ones. It can be jarring to see some uncomfortable humor mixed in with quiet melodrama. I will admit that I am grateful that I was warned about some of the shifts between the more earnest and satirical moments of the film. Still, I kind of like the ability of the film to switch up like that. It shows how a person’s life can change both gradually and suddenly. It also helps reveal different parts of someone’s character that may have not been apparent upon first glance.
If this was simply a consistent comedy drama the entire way through, or transitioned from comedy in the first part to drama in the second, it would not have been able to properly convey the changes in our own lives, how things are never as easy to pin down or predict, and how the past informs the present. And, to get that experience properly, it may require being shaken up a bit. Some may feel like it takes them out of the movie and hampers the experience. I say that that in itself is an experience.
I suppose that I should mention that the actress who plays Sheung is Josie Ho. You may recognize her from Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li or her forty-seconds of not talking in Contagion. She is one of the many children of Stanley Ho, a businessman and president of the Real Estate Developers Association of Hong Kong. Stanley Ho also had a net worth of US$2 billion in 2011 and has probably has some association with organized crime. I read somewhere that Stanley was actually a major financial backer of this movie and the movie’s production company that she runs with her husband. I doubt that the irony was lost on anyone, least of all the audience in Hong Kong. I get the impression that she was a bit of a wild child, though, and maybe she is a bit familiar with both people like the fancy apartment dwellers in this movie and with those in charge of driving up the prices for those apartments to ridiculous amounts. Perhaps making this movie was like catharsis for her. Or not; I don’t know.
Dream Home is not necessarily for everyone. It takes a pretty well-told tale and changes it up in ways that may seem a little confusing or uncomfortable. The stylistic choices may be a little more varied than one is used to. The moral of the story may seem jumbled, lost, bad, or buried under the storyline. But if you just sit back and recognize that you can think two thoughts at the same time, you might be able to get used to this movie and find worth not just in its unconventional storytelling, but in the story that it is telling.
And, really, haven’t you ever dreamed of living in a nicer home? This movie is totally relatable.
WTF ASIA 28: Cure (Japan: 1997, Approx. 112 minutes)
Available…uh…on the internet, I guess.
WTF ASIA 29: My Mother, the Mermaid (South Korea: 2004, Approx. 112 minutes)
Available on the internet.
Less than four minutes into the movie, a guy gets a cable tie around his neck.
He spends the next several seconds wriggling on the floor. He eventually manages to find a blade that he uses to try to break the tie. Unfortunately, he cuts his own throat instead. All in all, it takes him just under two minutes to die.
So, the premise of the movie, which I neglected to mention earlier, is that Sheung is going on a killing spree in the apartment complex. Happy Halloween: this is an exploitation movie. The poster at the top is something that I made up as a joke. This is the real poster.
Exactly why she is doing the killing is not made immediately clear, though the simple answer is that she will kill for a room with a view. Yep, that’s right. She is not seeking revenge against the mobsters who at terrorized the neighborhood all of those years ago and ran her childhood friend out of his apartment. She is not exposing the collusion between the gangsters and the property developers. She is not making a statement about the economic horror show that is Hong Kong at the dawn of the twenty-first century. She is not lashing out at her hard upbringing or the world that has done her wrong. She just wants that apartment. This works as a satire on two levels. The first is taking the difficulty of housing in Hong Kong to a ridiculous extreme where someone will actually do something like this. The second, which I find a bit juicier, is the mass murderer’s backstory.
I am not really big on slasher movies in general, so I don’t really know all of the nuances and probably should not make generalizations or pass judgment. That said, when a slasher villain needs a backstory to explain the murderous impulses, it seems to me to usually be something serious, or at least something with weight. It could be childhood trauma, abuse, bullying, a curse, vengeance for a murder. This makes it possible for the audience to understand the motivations behind the killer’s actions and even sympathize with the killer to an extent. There have been arguments that this attempt to give a sympathetic backstory is unnecessary usually grinds the movie to a screeching halt in terms of tension and narrative momentum. So what better way to satirize this trend than by making around half of the movie backstory? Well, make the murderous motivation something as mundane as wanting to live in a fancy apartment.
Other reasons could be easier to rationalize or explain in a court of law, but are any of them more justifiable? What does it matter to the dead what was going through the killer’s mind during the act of killing? They have died, and for what? Some psychopath’s twisted philosophy about life? For what someone else did to someone else twenty years ago? How is that any better than Sheung’s desire for an apartment? If anything, her motive could be more relatable to more people, although the movie eventually suggests that this may have all been completely unnecessary. As if any murder spree was ever even somewhat necessary. Besides, it is not as if her childhood was free of real-estate-related violence. The building with the apartment that she covets was built upon violence and its residents are beneficiaries of that violence. So maybe the grownup Sheung is just coming to collect payment in blood.
There are many ways that movies have justified and rationalized the use of violence against other people by main characters, pushing the limits of justification in the name of complexity or badassery, like with The Punisher. On the antagonist side, there have been numerous thinkpieces about the rise of the relatable antagonist, whose worldview or drive would be worthy of support if not for the mass murder, like with Killmonger from Black Panther. And, of course, there are audience members who like to side with the villains for and elevate them to the legendary status primarily because of their cruel brutality. This movie finds the sweet spot where these differing characterizations meet, and skips around like nothing matters.
There are plenty of movies about redemption. Certain cultures (ahem) love the idea love the idea of rising again after hitting rock bottom. It is why disgraced politicians, athletes, actors, comedians, journalists, and business leaders can make comebacks. It is why so many movies have the main characters do so many bad and stupid things before, only to become better people in the third act. It is why there are movies where the main character can be directly responsible for the death of a child and emerge from the movie a good person. This movie dispenses with that from the outset. Sheung is not going to cry into a bottle and attempt suicide, only to realize that there is more to life than a fancy apartment and spend the final ten minutes of the movie trying to become a better person. No, she will put that zip-tie on a sleeping man and watch him die for almost two minutes.
While there are a few minor twists in this movie that I have not revealed here, the movie does not pull the rug out from under us by portraying her rampage as a revelation. No, there are only two ways that this movie could end: either she gets her tragic comeuppance like some Hays Code Hellcat or she gets away with it all like a slasher who bursts out of his own grave. Regardless of whether the movie means for Sheung to be sympathetic, I would argue that it is not necessary for her to be. Yes, having sympathy for the principle character that a story is following is nice, but I find that it takes a backseat to a story that keeps me emotionally engaged and invested either on the level of entertainment or interest.
Sheung’s backstory is not one of intense heartache, at least nothing particularly special. She grew up poor, but so did many people. She had to share a room with other family members, but so did other people, including my own father when he was a child. Sheung lost family members, but so did others. Her father hit her and yelled at her at times, but that was not the catalyst for anything. There was no particularly unique or severe trauma in her life that would rationalize her behavior in the high rise. Maybe it would be okay if she killed herself and came back as a ghost.
What Sheung did have was a dream; a dream that other people considered stupid or impossible. For Sheung, it was a dream that outlasted its questionable origins, consumed her life and, ultimately, consumed the lives of complete strangers. She worked incredibly hard, sacrificing other avenues for happiness and pieces of her own soul in order to pursue this dream. But hard work was not enough. She saw how her father worked hard and all he got was sick. She saw other hard workers get bullied and forced out by gangsters with government connections. If this were some movie about justice or vengeance, she may have gone after the gangsters, but going after them would be only an indirect way of achieving her dream. She had to work hard, humiliate herself, cut corners, cheat others, and spend as little as possible simply to acquire enough money to simply move across the street. The dream was right there, blocking her view, enticing her, calling out to her. It was no longer a matter of ocean view, of happiness, of comfort, of social status; her dream was an addiction. This dream was all that she had. It was as if she had been sleepwalking all of her life and the casual way that the apartment’s owners rejected her caused her to react violently. Very violently. Perhaps she could have been seen as a folk hero had she merely stolen millions from the company where she worked to pay for the apartment. But she got murderous instead.
This movie is a fantasy about a poor woman who struggled and struggled to attain something that a bunch of rich neighbors had and did not appreciate. Who cannot relate to having dark thoughts about those who dismiss our passions and deny us the opportunity to follow them? We usually refrain from acting out on these thoughts because that is largely unacceptable in the real world. It is slightly more acceptable in fantasy. It brings about a sense of catharsis. Well, theoretically.
The movie switches back and forth between extended scenes of Sheung’s backstory and scenes of her killing people. The jumps back and forth start out fairly infrequently, but get more frequent later on the movie. Some have complained that the two parts of the movie do not gel well together, with the backstory being rather quiet and subtle and the murder scenes being over-the-top bloodbaths. And it is pretty blatant with the switching. Several of the flashbacks that go further in the past say the year that the events take place while most of the ones that take place during the spree have a time stamp near the start.
There have been complaints that each of the two facets of the movie ultimately detract from the other. Honestly, I disagree. I believe that this mood whiplash makes the movie better than it would have been without it. Setting aside the tradition of Hong Kong movies switching genres at the drop of a hat, here there is an actual purpose. The movie shows the life of an ordinary person struggling to get by while following a dream. Her drive and her hardships eventually takes her further into questionable territory until one day she just snaps. She is not a tortured soul or someone struck with unbearable tragedy; she is the type of person whom no one would have suspected. Sheung is also fairly sympathetic a character even as she starts engaging in unsavory stuff. The only thing that stops the audience from sympathizing with her is the knowledge that she will end up killing people. Isn’t the thought that any normal person can suddenly turn into a mass murderer for no good reason scarier than someone who exhibits multiple warning signs?
After what some may consider the most disturbing scene, the movie has the gall to go back all the way to Sheung’s childhood. Maybe in another movie, the childhood scenes would have been seen as sweet and sad. Here, though, utter manipulation is in full view, showing the artifice of the storytelling techniques to recontextualize what would otherwise be scenes of straightforward drama. Right there is an element of satire, and all the movie did was switch up the scenes. That they kept intruding onto the killing spree narrative towards end and messing up the momentum was like a joke unto itself.
The two parts of the movie still take place in the same world. The only thing that has truly changed is Sheung. The spree scenes are still fairly normal until Sheung bursts in like a force of nature. Sometimes, the movie builds up tension, like in the first scene. Other times, it doesn’t. One scene starts out with a brief blaring horror music cue, and then just plays out normally as if nothing is going to happen during the next eighty seconds.
To me, the movie would not have worked as well had it made the two parts of the movie more thematically or tonally similar. By having such a jarring juxtaposition, the two parts cast a shadow over each other in a way that greater consistency would not have achieved. The audience may know what happened, but maybe the backstory had no idea. The more frequent back and forth towards the end of the movie as the two parts start to merge allows them to overlap a bit in terms of tone and style. At the same time, the break-up of the narrative helps to create another sense: a sick sense of humor.
As I see it, the movie takes an extremely mundane and relatable motivation for anything and places it within the confines of two wildly different storytelling genres, treating it as just as valid as any motivation that has come out of those genres. It takes the cinematic template of both styles and ties them together with an unexpected narrative thread. If the movie does not work, is the issue that the thread is stupid or that the templates cannot withstand such a challenge, then would it be a better story had the desire for an apartment been the murder of one’s father? The latter may seem to be more of a valid motivation for a character, but they are both merely excuses for a story to have some kill a bunch of others. Why is the tried-and-true excuse more acceptable than the unique one? Why is the audience here? To mourn someone’s murdered father or to watch a lot of other people get murdered? Let’s not kid ourselves.
While I did not necessarily find the flashbacks in Dream Home to be entertaining per se, I found them to be engaging, interesting, and emotionally investing. Others may find them to be outright boring, and I cannot argue with that assessment, just as I cannot argue having sympathy for a character or not. What this movie does (maybe unintentionally) is to take the language of sympathetic storytelling and throw in the audience’s face. It is almost like a challenge to the viewer on both ends: it challenges them to find it in them to sympathize with a killer who has such a lame motive for murder while simultaneously challenging them to work out why this motive is all that lame when compared with any other motive. If Sheung is not a sympathetic protagonist…well, so what? She is a slasher; they can be sympathetic or unsympathetic. Would putting more focus on a sympathetic character make the movie better? Maybe have one of the high rise residents be some cute-as-a-button teenage girl who is really quite nice, and has to hide from Sheung for most of the movie before finally confronting her at the end? Yeah, that sounds stupid. This is Dream Home, not Home Where I Already Live Because I Am Rich Enough To Afford It.
There are a couple things of note. The first is that, aside from the zip ties and what I think is a screwdriver, Sheung tends to use items that she picks up from the apartment as weapons. Sometimes it can be as predictable as a kitchen knife; other times, she gets a little more creative. The second thing is the personalities of the residents. A fair number of slasher movies are populated by contemptible characters; this helps the audience root for their fatal comeuppance. This movie is not immune to that. The majority of the victims are shown to not appreciate the gift of being in this apartment and have some other unlikeable trait, though I would deem maybe only a few of them actually hateable. There were a couple victims, however, who are totally innocent. Yet, Sheung does not really care what these people are like; she just kills them. Yes, a few of her victims are jerks, but does that make them any more deserving of death than those who are not? And, I might be reading a bit too far into it, but one might be able to make the argument the people whom she kills are symbolic of what her life had become. She is killing the type of people who made her jump through hoops and do things that she did not want to do. She is killing the type of people whom she had stooped to becoming, to her own humiliation. She is killing the type of people who were supposed to help her, but either failed or actively worked against her. She killed the type of people whom she had not allowed herself to be for so long. She is cleansing that part of her life with a bath of blood. I…guess that that is a better motivation than simply wanting an apartment, though most of that resentment and rage is still tied up in her wanting that apartment.
Apparently, Josie Ho had originally wanted to go even further with the violence to the surreal level of earlier Hong Kong gorefests or the Japanese film Ichi the Killer (which she supposedly almost got cast in), but director Pang Ho-Cheung wanted to keep the movie somewhat grounded in reality. So…more like French Extreme than Asian Extreme. Perhaps he was ultimately right, but I do kind of wonder what her movie would have been like.
This movie may be inconsistent, but don’t confuse that with being confused. This movie may very well be exactly what it wants to be. Maybe it wants to throw you off balance. Maybe it wants to pull you in different directions. Maybe it wants you to feel disgusted and unsure. If you don’t think that it works, that is one thing. It is a completely different thing to dislike the attempt. If you can stomach gore and can set aside your expectations of how a movie should flow, then you may have a good time with this one.