Home Sweet Home (2005)

Directed by: Soi Cheang
Written by: Szeto Kam-Yuen & Tang Nik-Kei
Producers: Andrew Yu, Wong Hoi Ping, Lawrence Cheng & Stanley Tong
Starring: Shu Qi, Karena Lam, Alex Fong, Tam Chun Ho, Chau Hin Yan, Matt Chow & Lam Suet

Buy the DVD at:
HK Flix.com

Nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2006:
Best Actress (Karena Lam)

Award at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 2005:
Film Of Merit

The man described by Bey Logan as having "a great eye" seems to enjoy frolicking in the genre swamp known as horror but with a true breakout in 2004 with Love Battlefield, Soi Cheang showcased a creativity that prevented viewer nag about being "stuck" making just one kind of film. In fact, it was arguably partly a horror film in one sense, proving that the filmmaker was molding a genre his way. Promising grisly, grisly things through the poster art of Home Sweet Home, showing a heavily deformed woman that turns out to be rising star Karena Lam (July Rhapsody, The Floating Landscape), soon it's revealed that any expected horror elements are mere diversions. At heart, the film speaks more to the skills displayed in Cheang's Diamond Hill than in an effort like New Blood.

May (Shu Qi) and Ray (Alex Fong) moves into a new housing estate and it isn't long before it's discovered something is crawling inside the ducts. It's the son Chi Ho (Tam Chin Ho) who discovers it first, only to be abducted by the "monster". The couple are on the trail, close to getting their son back when Ray is viciously assaulted and hospitalized. Alone in her quest, May must face up to her own inner problems to get Chi Ho back. Along the way, she discovers that the duct monster is in fact a woman (Karena Lam) with a scarred past...

Utilizing the writing skills of Szeto Kam-Yuen once again (1*), Home Sweet Home doesn't go as far as Love Battlefield did in terms of punishing the audience but the writing offers up no simple answers despite. At center someone is bound to lose this battle, just a question of coming to terms with it and someone is going to have to grow through this battle, how ever deep the wounds eventually will go. It's a fine template and the film does not come with any expectations prior or a while into its first act either. This creates a genuine curiosity and even if you know Cheang's prior credits, he might as well opt for a terror tale with a Duracell monster for Shu Qi to fight with. It's soon clear though that family remains a central theme and while this is being set up, we still know very little of the dynamics within the Cheng couple, which is even more vital to creating audience curiosity. Thankfully it's not a frail relationship or one marred with abuse. It's just that the husband unfortunately comes with baggage in the form of a seemingly intimidating mother that makes May the weak.

"There's your problem." Enter a journey about growth and perseverance on your own while adding Soi Cheang's very well-honed skills in creating unnerving atmosphere and shots. Basically that's his horror flirts and genre deception with the audience before settling on the emotional battle that is going to drive the film. The direction isn't without its problems though but before saying anything else, it's nigh on impossible not to think of the hard hitting effect Love Battlefield created and the firm grip it possessed. Home Sweet Home doesn't fare as well when dealing initially with what is in the ducts. It's even downright sloppy and haphazardly handled as one character of the housing estate claims to know something but this never is elaborated on to any degree. Alex Fong entirely disappears from the film as well although it's a narrative choice you can live with. As the making of documentary shows, Fong had at least a little more screen time after his character's incident.

In this finely paced tension filled drama however, one that isn't about crapping your pants of fright, Soi thankfully makes the proceedings lively when playing out the development of Shu Qi and Karena Lam's characters. As I said, their fates aren't about both achieving what they want, but about an enlightenment through long passages sans dialogue, Cheang communicates heartfelt emotions, even set against a background of social critique, using a melodramatic score that somehow manages to not crush the images it's accompanying. Sure, jolts are found and various grisly sights cements the fact we're in horror territory at times but as bombastic as it is, Home Sweet Home maintains its focus on selected character goals fairly nicely.

Shu Qi does not appear at the top of her game but she grows to become a good part of the tension and emotions communicated by Soi Cheang. It's a good choice that no one ever stops to tell the audience what May's purpose is because we're very clear on that and whether in fright or tears, Shu serves the film well. The talented Alex Fong appears too little to achieve much of a contact with the audience, which seems a little unjust but he supports the writing as long as he's in. Karena Lam rocks this show the most, hidden underneath Mark Garbarino's superb make-up (2*). Hardly recognizable but for once being a gig where it's not the prosthetics acting, Lam takes on the challenge of being a presence without hardly any lines of dialogue. Going through the bug type behaviour and desperation as a longing mother, she puts forth less fright and more insane heart. The highest form of compliment.

Little Tam Chun Ho deserves a wealth of kudos though as he is seemingly put into some twisted situations and settings, all while maintaining a sense of what he's going through as a captive. His character becomes a victim of the most distressing twist towards the final act, one of the reasons Home Sweet Home maintains emotional investment to the degree it does. Lam Suet does not seem to do much but his run of the mill cop role is enhanced because the choices within the character's profession seems largely balanced. Neither denying or accepting May's theories, he works off what he has in the investigation. It isn't much of a great substantial character but you're just used to so much worse when the script calls for this type.

Home Sweet Home isn't as sharply defined and executed as Soi Cheang's career highlight Love Battlefield but nevertheless, he takes a cue from his old work Diamond Hill to deliver bankable drama within a framework leaning towards horror. Featuring written choices from Szeto Kam-Yuen that this time feels more true and fair, Cheang dedicates himself admirably and the conclusion is very much agreeable, even if memories of sights and sounds of the creepy kind is bound to leave a big impression as well. Soi Cheang still has a future, that's also an assuring thing.

The DVD:

Panorama presents the film in an anamorphically enhanced aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Palette is clearly designed to be washed out and mostly it's a well balanced transfer. Some grain and low detail is evident early but isn't a concern as we roll along.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 track lacks the punch and ambience that the 5.1 track in the same language possesses, even when downmixed to 2.0 for Pro Logic receivers like mine. The latter selection is therefore more recommended. Cantonese DTS ES 5.1 and Mandarin Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 options are also included.

The English subtitles comes with no grammar errors but choices in translation doesn't always feel very classy. These are just select moments in an otherwise non-problematic translation. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also available.

After producing several fine special editions, Panorama disappoints with this release. Not only is the making of (20 minutes, 1 second) the only substantial extra, it's also lacking an English subtitle track. The program goes through the participants as you expect, mixed up with film clips and slight behind the scenes footage. Most interesting pieces appears during Karena Lam's parts, showing the make-up process and some of the strains that comes with it. Make-up artist Mark Garbarino is also featured in some minor sound bites discussing his work. Remainder of the extras are trailers for Election, Everlasting Regret and Drink Drank Drunk. None for Home Sweet Home though.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson

(1) Writing credits includes Expect The Unexpected, Cheang's Love Battlefield and the recent SPL.

(2) Now a veteran of the Hong Kong productions Running On Karma and Wait 'Til You're Older, Mark has a notable lists of credits working in movies and TV in America, including Alien Nation, Babylon 5, Mission: Impossible II and Six Feet Under.