We all know low-budget vanity projects seldom turnout well. Films like The Room, After Last Season and Birdemic immediately jump to mind when uttering that phrase. They usually do nothing but show that no matter what amount of money they spend, the self-indulgent creator can never buy the kind of hard work and experience of those that have honed their filmmaking craft over years.
The best they can usually hope for is a cult following due to the "so bad it’s good" aesthetic these films seem to have. Enter Josie Ho a semi-successful, semi-talented Chinese actress/singer that had done bit parts in quite a few US, Hong Kong and Japanese productions; but still had yet to get her big break out starring role. She also just happens to also be the daughter of Stanley "The King of Gambling" Ho, the 13th richest man in China and the man that held a government-granted monopoly over the Macau gambling industry for 40 years.
Worth over $2 billion dollars Stanley did what any filthy rich father of an aspiring actress/singer would do: he gave her $12.8 million dollars to create a production company 852 Films. Josie then used $4.8 million of that to produce her first starring vehicle Dream Home.
This is where the story gets interesting. Inspired by the cult classic The Story of Ricki, Josie decides to use the funds to produce a slasher film, and casts herself in the lead as the killer. Paired with writer/director Ho-Cheung Pang, a director not known for shying away from more controversial subject matter, they crafted a smart period slasher film that somehow manages to put a new spin on one of the most tired horror sub-genres out there.
Dream Home takes place in 1997, right before the housing bubble popped in Hong Kong thanks to the transfer of sovereignty from the UK to China (better-known The Handover). It’s the story of Cheng Lai (Ho), a woman who has wanted, since she was a small girl, to get an apartment on Victoria Bay in Hong Kong; one of the most expensive areas to live.
From being a paid mistress, to working at a bank where she pushes people to get further in debt, we see that Cheng Lai will do anything to raise money for the down payment she needs to get the bank loan for her $4.9 million dollar apartment.
The film comes in right at the end of her grueling fundraising, and when she finally manages to scrape the money together, predictably, the deal falls through. The broken woman then hatches a plan to lower the price of the apartment by killing everyone in the building rendering the property as "cursed."
While Cheng Lai is indeed a brutal monster, there is still an underlying sympathy the audience feels for her character that is almost unheard of, due to the suffering she has undoubtedly endured to get this far in her quest. Josie Ho somehow treads a very fine line being both sympathetic and an abomination at the same time. You feel sorry for the woman and what she has gone through; but no matter what you can’t condone her actions.
The story is an intelligent departure with an ending that is probably one of the better and intelligent twist endings in recent memory. After Dream Home finished shooting a few scandals kept the headlines going in Hong Kong even after word started to spread that the heiress’s film was actually turning out surprisingly well.
The first scandal involved Josie Ho’s husband Conroy Chan and a hook-up with a minor supporting actress on the film. The couple has since reconciled but the next scandal pit the writer/director Ho-Cheung Pang against the star, producer, and owner of the film in a fight that eventually delayed the release.
The director cited "creative differences" over the final cut of the film which had come into question when Josie wanted to edit the film due to a subplot where her character attempts to obtain her father’s life insurance. That particular plot point got sensitive thanks to her father’s then ongoing hospitalization after the billionaire had a stroke.
Josie told press she wanted to take the film away from the director because he wanted to edit the gore out of the film and that story pretty much ended there since Josie held all the cards on the film. The film was edited and released almost a year late. While the film didn’t do poorly upon its theatrical release in China, it was definitely affected by the release of a little film called IP Man 2 at the same time. The film was gaining some momentum abroad on the festival circuit and winning a few awards.
Dream Home was grisly, beautiful, unflinching and brilliant all at the same time. So much is made of vanity projects gone wrong. The film was eventually picked up by IFC Films in the US who didn’t seem to know what to do with this little gem and unceremoniously dumped the film on DVD (not even Blu-ray) in the US with almost no fanfare whatsoever. Thanks to what seems like a series of bad turns the film can’t even be considered a cult film because so few even know about it.