Rigor Mortis (2013)
Evil Has Come
Rigor Mortis, meaning ‘stiffness of death’ — one of the signs of biological decay as limbs from the corpse stiffen ‘rigor,’ and become difficult to move or manipulate — is the title for this contemporary, action-special effects laden homage to the classic Chinese vampire pictures of the 1980’s, particularly the genre-defining horror comedy Mr. Vampire (1985). In his feature directorial debut, Cantonese pop-star turned actor Juno Mak, Revenge: A Love Story (2010), has surprisingly crafted a visually striking tribute to the Jiang Shi, also known as a Chinese ‘hopping’ vampire, and the heyday of Hong Kong cinema — when the bloodsucker genre was very much alive and kicking — as Rigor Mortis stylishly blends horror elements together with supernatural folklore, along with added emotional depth, establishing itself as a refreshingly different kind of meta-picture.
Right from the film’s opening scene, vampire aficionados will instantly recognize Siu-Ho Chin — one of the last surviving cast members of the classic Mr. Vampire series – in the picture’s leading role; Mak dedicates Rigor Mortis to Ching-Ying Lam and Ricky Hui, two other deceased Mr. Vampire stars. Here, Siu-Ho Chin plays a fictionalized version of himself, Chin Sui-Ho, a depressed, washed up actor who moves into a dilapidated tenement building to commit suicide. There, he meets Yau — Chin’s Mr. Vampire co-star Anthony Chan, wearing the same Coke-bottle glasses he wore in Mr. Vampire and Mr. Vampire Saga (1988) — a veteran Taoist vampire hunter, who now runs his own food stall in the public housing high-rise. Chin also gains the attention of other unusual tenants living in the complex, all portrayed by various veterans of Hong Kong cinema; Gau (Fat Chung), a local temple priest who happens to be dabbling with the dark arts in a secret backroom of his apartment, a devoted couple, Auntie Mui (Hee-Ching Paw) and Uncle Tung (Richard Ng), whose unbreakable bond is tested after one of them meets a horrific fate, and Yeung Feng (Kara Hui), a single mother caring for a young albino boy whose tragic past is linked to that of the chilling prison-like tower. When attempting to take his own life, undead occupants make their presence known to Chin, compelling him to put his suicide efforts ‘on hold’ and seek out resident exorcist Yau, in an attempt to rid the building from an imperious evil foe.
Co-produced by J-Horror icon Takashi Shimizu — director of Ju-on (2002) — and written by Lai-yin Leung, Revenge: A Love Story (2010), and Philip Yung, Glamorous Youth (2009), Rigor Mortis takes its time to shape character arcs and reveal their history, which may require a certain level of patience from patrons, but director Mak keeps this journey attractive by crafting an eerie and unsettling atmosphere throughout the picture, as each frame is lavishly decorated with intricate details and musty subdued colors, aiding to the film’s suspense and desolation. Several morbid creatures share an uncanny resemblance to producer Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on ghouls, whilst Mak’s action sequences mimic his, Revenge: A Love Story director, Wong Ching Po’s bloody visual expression and energy — it’s worth noting that Rigor Mortis is not for the faint of heart or easily squeamish as the picture is remarkably ultra-violent. Although borrowing from other directors, Mak, who co-produced the film, injects his own bizarre close-ups — Yau’s flip-flops sticking to a bloody floor being just one example — and hypnotic slow-motion images into the mix, fashioning a distinctive filmmaking style, particularly evident in the elaborate effects-heavy climax with results being overall visually satisfying, despite the fact that these hyper-stylized scenes never actually establish any sense of internal logic.
Rigor Mortis endeavors to be rather profound at times as it tackles themes of loss and regret in the form of a loving wife who desperately attempts to preserve the life of her deceased husband, Chin’s initial despair when he moves into the building or the vengeful spirits inhabiting the premises, unable to let go of their sorrowful past. The same could be said of the veteran actors who make up the ensemble cast; despite being icons of yesteryear, these personalities have largely been forgotten by modern Hong Kong cinema, and represent the passing of a significant era of the industry — those familiar with their work will no doubt become nostalgic seeing these personalities, once again, shine on film. In terms of performances, the cast do a decent job bringing their respective characters to life; Siu-Ho Chin, Mr. Vampire (1985), headlines the picture as the forgotten actor who chooses to fight against the malevolent forces dwelling in his building; watching Chin once again take the lead will surly evoke 1980’s nostalgia for Mr. Vampire admirers — Chin displays such a natural ease, it’s as if the guy never left our screens. Richard Ng, Winners and Sinners (1983), is excellent as both, the bitter Uncle Tung — who provides the picture’s only laughs — and as the menacing hopping vampire he eventually becomes. Tung’s widow, Hee-Ching Paw, Fearless (2006), is equally as stirring and delivers a genuinely authentic mournful performance, whilst Johnnie To regular Hoi-Pang Lo, The Grandmaster (2013), is amusing as the building’s sole security guard, Uncle Yin, who injects a sense of colorful flair into flick’s desaturated, garyish stained palette.
Truth be told, the picture’s visual effects laden finale, although a splendor to watch, is somewhat alienating to Western audiences as Rigor Mortis ditches its pop-horror elements and turns to ancient Chinse rituals and folklore for its concluding act, combining the arcane with the mundane as matter transforms from water, to wood, to mud and fire, as Chin and an outsized vampire duke it out in a concrete hallway, bouncing in and out of recognizable reality. Furthermore, Mak throws in a last-minute twist that will undoubtedly throw certain viewers off — almost pulling a rug out from under our feet — with the film’s final scenes playing out like an unusually elegant eulogy to a long forgotten genre and its devotees, basically putting its past to rest.
At the end of the day, Rigor Mortis is not your typical Asian ghost story. The picture succeeds as an above average fright flick, oddly blending elements of 2000 Japanese horror, martial arts and surreal dreamscapes together, and should be appreciated for what it truly is; an extravagant homage to the ‘Jiang Shi’ genre as well as Mak’s personal thoughts on the subject’s richness. The picture is a bigger triumph for rookie director Mak — previously best known for being one of pop-singer/actress Gillian Chung’s ex-boyfriends — who has successfully shaped a remarkably poignant horror movie steeped in his own distinguishing visual aesthetic, as Rigor Mortis — this discolored, slow-build horror film — serves as a fascinating glimpse into a strange genre which never quite flourished beyond its Eastern roots.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Rigor Mortis is released through Well Go USA Entertainment
Great review! Agree 🙂 Rigor Mortis is very stylish and pays extreme tribute to Mr. Vampire. Juno Mak really earns himself a lot of respect and potential as a director. However, as I said in my own review, there is a lot of Chinese rituals and beliefs injected in this flick. He’s taken a lot of time to look at a lot of details which I think the Western audience who doesn’t have a lot of knowledge of this might appreciate less.
I totally agree, although if more effort was injected into explaining some of these rituals or folklore themes, ‘Rigor Mortis’ would have been a little more accessible to a Western audience! While I enjoyed the film, it’s a hard one to outright recommend!
Yeah, I remember raising the question of why it was in TIFF last year (thats where I saw it) because of exactly that. I’m not sure even if they did put the effort to explain it, they would even have enough time. Haha! They might have opted out of going too much into detail because it was too complex and would just confuse the audience even more? I really don’t know.
Very true, but as I said, I enjoyed it and am eager to see what director Mak does next!