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Home Sweet Home
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by Jay Seaver

"Mean, then messy."
3 stars

The sheer amount of "wait, what?" at the back end of "Home Sweet Home" isn't quite enough to fritter away all the nasty vibes and tension it starts with, but there's a short stretch where it seems to be trying its best. It winds up a case of twist overload, a movie whose makers don't seem to recognize that what's going on up front is far more exciting and resonant than what's hiding behind it as they pull the rug out from under the audience.

After opening in the immediate aftermath of a horrific school bus accident, it soon jumps several years forward, with the bus's driver Yu Kunqiao (Duan Yihong) having spent the intervening time hiding in the basement of the Wang family, barely able to remember the incident thanks to his own head injury and afraid to face China's harsh punishment for his part in an incident that left so many school children dead. Even without harboring a fugitive, the family seems increasingly frayed: Wealthy Mr. Wang (Aaron Kwok Fu-Sing) is controlling, Mrs. Kwok (Tiffany Hsu Wei-Ning) wants a divorce, daughter Chutong (Zhang Zifeng) is at an awkward, rebellious age - she prefers sketching and having Kunqiao critique her work over her mandated piano lessons - and son Chuqi (Rong Zishan) still walks with a limp from being the only kid to survive the crash. They are the very image of a picture-perfect life that is about to explode, and Kunqiao apparently isn't the only secret.

Some thrillers like to start out with a seemingly serene status quo, but writer Shu Qiao and director Chen Leste - who recently collaborated on TV series A Murderous Affair in Horizon Tower - opt to start dropping bombs early, and if it looks clear that Kungqiao's fuzzy memories of the accident are awful convenient for Mr. Wang (and probably a greater reason for the lack of a TV in the house than his desire to keep the kids focused on their education), that's fine. A Chinese thriller is seldom going to turn on whether or not someone gets away with a crime, and the audience knows that, but the inevitability of the end lets the filmmakers take a perverse glee in surveying the rot. Mrs. Wang prepares beautiful dinners that nobody ever seems to actually enjoy, the scene of her skinning a duck as much a reminder of how riches come through ruthlessness as the disturbing photograph above the piano Chutong plays. The kids are more sympathetic than the adults, but not exempt, often lashing out with their own sort of cruelty. It's a portrait of a tremendously unhappy family that will fight any member's attempt to ease their own misery.

Not having to keep their resentments hidden often pays dividends for the impressive cast. Consider Aaron Kwok as the patriarch of this messed-up family, giving a skin-crawling performance that doesn't really need a lot of nuance, but which is all the more enjoyable for how readily one can hiss even as one can occasionally see where Mr. Wang is coming from. It's just one of several that let the audience savor their messed-up but kind of consistent values, with Tiffany Hsu especially doing entertaining work as someone who comes off as shallow and materialistic but isn't exactly unsympathetic at any point. What's perhaps surprising is how thoroughly Zhang Zifeng winds up taking the film's center as Chutong even though the story is built around Duan Yihong's Kunqiao; though natural parallels in breeding to escape this toxic environment, it weighs a bit more heavily on Chutong, who doesn't have an easy feeling if guilt to fall back on so much as the growing unease at what she's part of. It's potentially a lot to drop on a young actress, but Zhang is more than up for it, giving a performance that works with the story but always seems real, rather than one thing hiding another, which makes sense for the character.

That qualifier gets at what makes the movie frustrating, though: For the most part, this movie is far more fun to just watch in the moment than to look back at, reconsidering with more information. Wang's plan is complex to the point where revealing it takes much more effort than just pulling back a curtain, and it's a major stumbling block. Maybe if the powder keg had gone off earlier, the second half would be more fun, but instead it's just a ton of people saying what really went on. It doesn't exactly throw away the rest of the movie, but does make it into a little more work and a little less grand melodrama when it feels like things should be going the other way.

That said, the ideas behind it are good enough to turn over in one's brain even if there's some immediate discontent coming out of the theater. It's not a perfect thriller or one that lives up to its early potential, but it lingers a bit and works enough in the moment for a watch.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=34394&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/06/21 12:27:34
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  01-May-2021 (M)

Directed by
  Leste Chen

Written by
  Qiao Shu

  Aaron Kwok
  Yihong Duan
  Zifeng Zhang
  Tiffany Hsu
  Zishan Rong

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