In about a quarter of a second, that woman is going to get stabbed in the back of the head and her left eye is going to pop right out. Yay for Halloween.

Dream Home

So, Parzania was maybe not a proper Halloween film, sure. Maybe, instead of a film where a mob of people goes on a killing spree in a poor apartment complex, a film where one person goes on a killing spree in a wealthy condominium would be more appropriate. Today, I am revisiting the movie Dream Home, for $2.99 on Youtube or Amazon. I had already talked about it before here, but that was originally an April Fool’s post, so I was being a bit cute with the original description. No worries about this time around, but today I wanted to touch upon a specific aspect of the film: the aspect of audience sympathy.

First, a little summary. Don’t worry, there are only a few actual twists and I mention none of them. The movie begins on just under an hour before Halloween, 2007. A mysterious figure enters a high rise and sneaking into the surveillance room where the security guard is asleep. The stranger slips a zip-tie around his neck and pulls it tight. The guard, now awake, wriggles around in agony, while the stranger stands to the side brandishing a mallet. The guard manages to find a blade and tries to cut the zip-tie, but manages only to cut into his own neck, so he dies from bleeding out as well as suffocation. The stranger then takes out the security tape and leaves, off to kill some more. The stranger’s name is Sheung, and she is our protagonist.
Sheung, otherwise known as Lai-sheung or Li-sheung, has wished to live in an apartment with a harbor view since she was a preteen. Her grandfather had been a sailor when he was young and he would frequently walk down the street to look out to sea. She and her working class family lived close to a building that had one and there may have been a vague possibility that her family could move there when she was a child. However, that building was torn down (with its residents forcibly evicted) and a fancy high rise was built on top of the ruins, effectively crushing her dreams. But her dream did not die, not even after her grandfather passed. She quit college to get a job in order to buy one of those apartments for her mother, father, younger brother, and herself. And she kept working for it even after her mother died. By the time she was in her late twenties, she was working at two part-time jobs with dubious ethical practices and was a mistress to a married man. Almost all of the money that she has made, she is saving up for the apartment. Her co-workers think that she is obsessed. Her lover thinks that she is being irrational, the real estate agent is skeptical, and her brother seems unsure at best. None of them can discourage her.At a certain point in the movie, it may dawn on the viewer that either Sheung had forgotten her original motivation for wanting the apartment, or that she had been lying to herself the entire time. A second flashback to her childhood revealed that she resented having to share a room with her younger brother. In the present time, her resentment has shifted to her father, who has become a burden after getting sick. While she still takes her brother along to look at an apartment that she hopes to buy, he is almost like an afterthought for her. This is not her dream for her grandfather, her mother, her father, or her brother. It is a dream for her. It is a dream that she has worked for for sixteen years. She is getting close to being able to afford it and no one is going to take it from her.When Sheung is finally able to afford the apartment, she pays the deposit and goes over to the high rise to sign the contract with the current owners. She gets caught up in traffic and apologizes for being late, but it doesn’t matter. The owners have gotten convinced that they could sell the apartment for 50% more and have backed out of the deal. And from the smiles on their faces, they also genuinely seem to believe that they can mollify Sheung by paying her double the deposit. Sheung, however, is furious. She walks back to her apartment in a daze and the fumes over this final insult for hours. She grabs her father’s tool belt and returns to the high rise, out for blood. And that is how one lazy security guard bled to death. And he would not be her only victim that night.

Yep, that is correct. The killer in this movie is killing for a view; for an apartment. That is it.

Some people…well, many people…may say that that is a stupid reason to kill anyone, let alone kill multiple people. And, of course it is a stupid reason. But what are good reasons for killing people? Immediate self-defense and defense of family? Maybe, particularly if there is a clear and present threat of death. In war? I guess, sure. Capital punishment? Well, wait until Saturday for that one. All of these are debatable in terms of legality, ethics, and morality.

So, what about movies? There are so many ways that movies have justified the use of violence against other people. It particularly helps if the victims are violent brutes themselves, but this is not always necessary. Sometimes, they can simply be despicable, or a symbolic target of insult like Justin Bieber or a lawyer or a movie critic or that jerk in the corvette with the Bluetooth. Depicting violence against those people? Totally okay.

Now that I have established a few acceptable targets, what of the people dispatching such deadly violence? How can they kill others while still maintain the moral high ground? Well, setting aside the killers of merely despicable people for a moment, I will focus on the people who kill the violent ones. There are, of course, police officers and troops who are merely doing their jobs to protect society and the civilians. There are the chosen ones who may not actually want to be doing any of this, but they have to fulfill a prophecy…or they have some special purity of heart or whatever. There are those who just find themselves in a bad place at a bad time and have to fight their way out. There are those who kill for money, but would never kill a child and find themselves at odds with their employers. There are those who have killed for money, but want out after this one last job that involves avenging the death of a child. There are those who HAVE KILLED A CHILD, but it was an accident and they feel very haunted about it and never thought to pick up a weapon again until danger comes around again. Then there are those who want vengeance, usually vengeance against those who harmed them or their loved ones. All of these people can be seen as sympathetic if portrayed certain ways. In fact all of these people can be utter scumbags and still be viewed with some level of sympathy as long as it is established that the people whom they are killing are worse and deserving of immediate and violent death.

What of the symbolic targets of human violence? The jerk in the corvette, etc? This one is a little tricky and sometimes sympathy does not enter into it. If the jerk is enough of a jerk, it does not really matter who kills him, as long as the killer is not the valiant hero. This does not mean that the killer cannot be the protagonist. Some people argue that the slasher in certain slasher movie franchises is the protagonist, not the survivors of the slaughter. Some slashers are complete mysteries in terms of motivation. There is no real explanation for their murderous tendencies, at least none that are in any way sympathetic. Others have backstories full of abuse, humiliation, heartache, manipulation, and maybe a supernatural curse. Though not always successful, these stories attempt to give some form of sympathy for this brutal murderer.

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 only to keep her from doing the same to her brother. 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. Don’t tell me that you never tried pursuing 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 others. She worked incredibly hard, sacrificing other avenues for happiness and pieces of her own soul in order to pursue this dream. But hard work is 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.

The main catalyst for my making this post was a youtube review of the movie where the reviewer said that he had no sympathy for the main character, and said this as a criticism. This is not the only criticism that he had, the other main one was that he thought that the flashbacks took up too much time and the mixed-up chronology threw off the pacing and mood. I will get to those other points of contention in a bit, but I want to go back to his not being able to sympathize with the protagonist.

Other viewers were able to sympathize with the protagonist despite her killing spree. And while that may be odd, it is not entirely without reason. First off, while the short bit of text at the beginning asserts that this is a true story, that is accurate only in the sense that this is truly a story…or that the text itself is true, but not the movie. This is a heavily fictionalized account of something that may have happened to a much lesser degree or not have happened at all. In other words, this is not a true story. It is fiction, it is fantasy. It 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. That the main actress in this movie is the daughter of one of the richest men in Hong Kong (he actually helped to finance the movie) is proof that this is fantasy. 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 criticism about the chronology is not one to easily dismiss as the complaints of someone who could not follow the story. Yes, it can break up the tone and prevent some people from getting invested with either part of the story. And one could find the flashbacks to be quite boring. Again, though, I want to focus on the matter of audience sympathy. Of course, if you go into this movie knowing what it is about, you have less of an excuse because you knew what you were getting into. If you did not know, however, you may have no idea until around twenty minutes into the movie that the killer of the security guard is the same person that the movie had been following for the past fourteen minutes. Up to that point, you might see Sheung as a sad and lonely woman caught up in some shady banking business just trying to follow a dream of owning an apartment. Her determination to save up her money comes across as noble when compared to her coworkers planning to blow their ill-gotten gains at a casino. Then the movie goes back to the high rise apartment. Any viewer who did not yet realize that Sheung is the murderer knows now. Even here, at this point, it may be unclear why she is killing these people, but the idea that she is killing them for the apartment may manifest itself. And it may sound dumb. And any sympathy that the viewer had for Sheung during what is now revealed to be a flashback may very well disappear the moment after the screenshot up there.

After some more intense violence, the movie has the gall to do a flashback all the way to Sheung’s childhood. Maybe in another movie, the following scenes would have been seen as sweet and sad. Here, though, it can come across as utterly manipulative, and many viewers many viewers may consider themselves too savvy to fall for that. Yet, maybe that was the point. The movie was 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.

Incidentally enough, if recut so that everything is in chronological order, the very beginning of the movie would be at around the halfway point. Would it not be more jarring to have the first forty-eight minutes be some sixteen-year saga of a young woman’s growing obsession with an apartment and then have the second forty-eight minutes be devoted almost entirely to one night where she kills a bunch of people?As I see it, the movie takes an extremely mundane 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 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.There are plenty of movies about redemption. Certain cultures (ahem) love the idea of rising again after hitting rock bottom. It is why disgraced politicians, athletes, and actors 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. There is no coming back from that…is there? Well…what if it turned out that she were a contract killer and this was her last job? No? Okay, I guess not. 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 is only two ways that this movie could end: either she gets her comeuppance like some Hays Code Hellcat or she gets away with it all like a slasher who bursts out of his own grave.To go back to the Youtube reviewer, I don’t believe that he outright said that the flashbacks were boring, but he did say that they took away time and momentum from the good stuff…meaning the violence. Yes, he had wanted to see more focus on her committing horrid acts of violence while complaining that she was unsympathetic. Other viewers may disagree. For me, it can go back and forth. I can find a bit of sympathy within an extremely vague thematic standpoint concerning crushed dreams of obsessions and the occasional feelings of powerlessness. From a specific “what would you do if you were in this particular situation” standpoint, of course not. But, then again, I don’t consider myself to be vigilante material either.

I have little ability to argue with a person who claims that a fictional character is sympathetic or not. Lack of sympathy, however, is not necessarily the kiss of death that boredom is. 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. 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. In any case, lack of sympathy for a character may negatively affect my emotional engagement or interest in a movie, but it is not necessarily a deal breaker, though it will likely transform apathy into antipathy. For example, I absolutely detest the film Annie Hall, and sat through the whole thing only for my father’s sake. There are other movies where I kind of emotionally zoned out after a protagonist did something that I found to be both stupid and contemptible. All of this is subjective, of course, and emotional consistency from movie to movie should be neither assumed nor required. 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.

So, 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.

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