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Dream Home -- Film Review

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UDINE, Italy -- In Hong Kong, where real estate prices are among the most exorbitant in the world, how far would one go to own a condo with a sea view? Pang Ho-cheung offers a macabre answer in "Dream Home," in which a woman tries to buy an apartment at discounted price by bumping off all the residents in neighboring units.

Pang is the first to cross-breed the critique of rapacious property development (which traditionally belongs to the realm of neo-realism in Hong Kong cinema) with the slasher genre. Too bad the delicate balance between pertinent social observation and some daringly visceral violence ends up tipping toward increasingly unrealistic and grotesque splatter material.

The fact that one audience member fainted while two others vomited when it premiered at Udine Far East Film Festival serves as a kind of publicity, but the film is likely to be pigeon-holed as B-movie genre DVD material in overseas markets.

Sheung (Josie Ho) juggles a thankless job doing phone marketing for a bank with other shift work to save up to buy a unit in Victoria Bay No 1, a luxury condo facing the harbor. She has loveless trysts with a married man (Eason Chan) who treats her like dirt. On the day she puts down the deposit, the owners suddenly hike the price. Extreme circumstances call for extreme measures.

Pang's handling of overall structure is expertly controlled, weaving a smooth non-linear narrative between Sheung's dreary life in the present, flashbacks to her traumatic episodes in her childhood that explains why she is bent on buying that one specific apartment and her clinical murders of the residents.

While all the murders are utterly graphic, the earlier ones achieve a brute impact by its rather creative use of common everyday tools, like a vacuum cleaner, a plastic bag or industrial rubber ropes. There's also a certain anarchist spirit in the way Pang self-consciously pushes boundaries of cinematic propriety, for instance by making a pregnant woman one of the victims (a scene sure to disgust many.)

But he runs amok as he tries to up the ante in goriness, resorting to such juvenile gimmicks as gut-spilling and castration, a horny foursome that seems like an excuse for puerile humor and the splatter-film cliche of victims who refuse to die despite lethal injuries.

Despite opening with citations of figures indicating the gaping disparity between percentage increase in income and real estate in 2007 when the film was set, the ruthless way in which developers bully grassroots residents is depicted in an impressionistic and sensational way. The social context ultimately serves only as pretext for blood and gore.

Josie Ho does an admirable job conveying rage held inwards and avoiding stereotyped mannerisms of the psychopath. The dauntlessness with which she goes about her strangling and stabbing excites a warped fascination. But fine acting alone cannot salvage a character whose motives and behavior are so difficult to sympathize with.

None of Sheung's woes -- whether growing up in a slum, having an obnoxious boyfriend or her mother's early death -- are dire enough to justify killing innocent people in cold blood, especially when some are from even less privileged backgrounds, like the domestic helper and security guard.

Technical credits are above average with studio sets of both run-down estates and upscale pads looking every inch like the real thing. Cinematographer Yu Lik Wai's poetic camerawork yields mournful images of run-down building complexes and rooftop views crisscrossed with TV antennas, all shrouded in gray, smoggy light. Gabriele Roberto's distinctive score is features hard rock passages that provide a coolly rough edge.

Venue: Udine Far East Film Festival
Production company: 852 Film Ltd presents a Making Film production
Cast: Josie Ho, Eason Chan, Paw Hee Ching, Norman Chu, Vivian Leung
Director-screenwriter-producer-story by: Pang Ho Cheung
Screenwriters: Derek Tsang, Jimmy Wan
Producers: Subi Liang, Conroy Chan, Josie Ho
Executive producer: Andrew Ooi
Director of photography: Yu Lik Wai
Production designer: Man Lim Chung
Music: Gabriele Roberto
Editor: Wenders Li
Sales: Fortissimo Films
No rating, 96 minutes