It would be easy to trash "Home Sweet Home" and call it a failure. The film has the thankless job of following up on the last couple of years' horror revolution, led by Korean and Japanese films. In this race Hong Kong has fallen hopelessly behind and even now, where the novelty of this New Asian Horror Wave has begun to wear off, Hong Kong still hasn't caught up.
In this light it feels like "Home Sweet Home" would have been better suited for the 80's when films like "Friday the 13th" (1980) and "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984) were the talk of the town. There's almost no trace of the New Wave stuff, like creepy little girls with long black hair or ominous soundtracks, instead the film relies on old-fashioned well-worn tricks of the trade, albeit with a slight asian twist.The thing about horror films is that while it's easy to shock somebody (all you have to do is say "booh"), it's a lot harder to create a bone chilling uneasy feeling that will influence the audience, even when there's nothing scary going on. This is where "Home Sweet Home" fails most monumentally.
When the film first tries to introduce the "scary factor" everything takes place in shiny white corridors in broad day light and it's nigh on impossible to create a scary situation under those condition. Later when when darkness, thunder and lightning sets in, director Cheang Pou Soi insist on diluting the scary feeling with an aggressive score which tells us exactly when we should be scared, and in this day and age that approach simply doesn't work anymore.
Creating that aforementioned bone chill takes hard work and patience from the director. Take for example "The Exorcist", arguably one of the most frightening films ever made. Here William Friedkin carefully presents the background for the story, the characters and the setting, and it takes ages before anything truly scary happens, but because this foundation is so solid, the wait isn't boring and the payoff comes when the horror kicks in.
Still, "Home Sweet Home" is not without certain very effective moments. Take for example the scenes where May is crawling through the narrow corridors of the ventilation system searching for her child, who, unbeknownst to her, is being dragged along by the creature, right behind her! Fairly freaky! In fact the one aspect of the film that works flawlessly is the fate of Chi Lo. What this cute little kid has to go through is just heartbreaking. There are few thing harder to look at than a child being mistreated and this little guy is in for one rough ride.
When we follow May's search for Chi Lo the film reaches its full potential, but there are still too many things that don't work properly.
Little things like continuity: One of the most crucial scenes, the kid falling over the edge of the building, is almost incomprehensible due to bad continuity. And why is the always reliable Lam Suet wasted in a pointless role of the cop investigating the kid's disappearance? He's never been this bland before. The problem is that the story pushes Mr. Cheng to the sidelines fairly early, so Lam Suet's role has to be there, otherwise there's no one May can confide in. I would have preferred if the film had used friction between the married couple as a point of conflict, rather that this uninteresting cop character.
Worst of all, though, is the way "The Creature" is completely demystified before the half hour mark, and about an hour into the film we're treated to a mini-movie explaining the background of this character in a very clumsy way that also completely humanises the monster. Needless to say a horror film that vaporises its horrific element halfway through is a hard thing to recommend.
This is not my favorite performance from Shu Qi, but that's mostly because of problems with the film itself. In all fairness she does exactly what she's suppose to do and she's never anything less than completely convincing as a desperate mother, but I can't shake the feeling that somehow we've seen all this before.
The film could almost be a sequel to "The Eye 2". And though I appreciate when such a beautiful actress attempts a non-glamour role, this feels a little too much like second helpings.
Boiled down to the bone "Home Sweet Home" is a really heartbreaking and gruesome story. The dramatic core - a desperate mother's search for her child - works very well, but as a horror film it's not terribly impressive. A handful of successful scares spread out over a whole film is just not enough and even at 98 minutes the film feels long.
As I mentioned earlier, we've seen this type of horror movie since the early 80's, and although revivals are in, this doesn't feel like one. It feels more like a lack of ambition. The film is by no means unwatchable, but it just never gets really scary, or even that interesting.