Rigor Mortis (2013)
Dir. Juno Mak
Written by Philip Yung, Jill Leung, Juno Mak
Starring Chin Siu-ho, Anthony Chan, Kara Hui, Lo Hoi-pang, Hee Ching Paw
Yesterday we saw John Fasano’s American tribute to the Hong Kong jiangshi or “Hopping Vampire” films of the mid-80s and early 90’s. Today we look at something completely different: Hong Kong’s modern tribute to the Hopping Vampire genre. Bizarrely, where the American version carefully (and mostly successfully) attempted to cultivate the goofy, Scooby-Doo tone of the original run of these movie, Hong Kong has been going in a different direction lately; the Tsui-Hark produced ERA OF THE VAMPIRE in 2002 brought a more serious tone to the genre (he made up for it with a goofy comedy version called VAMPIRE EFFECT the following year), but RIGOR MORTIS goes further still. It has many aspects of the original genre, including a Taoist exorcist, a hopping vampire, vengeful spirits, supernaturally-assisted martial arts battles, plenty of the specific trappings of this particular mythology (symbolic sticky notes which control the dead when placed on their forehead; glutinous rice which deters them), and even a roster composed heavily of the stars of these films. But in almost every way imaginable, it uses these details to evoke an entirely different style. Where MR. VAMPIRE and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE SPOOKY KIND were colorful and broad, RIGOR MORTIS is grim, dark, and arty.
Set in modern times, this is the story of washed up actor Chin Siu-ho (Chin Siu-ho, star of the original MR. VAMPIRE, playing a fictionalized version of himself a la Van Damme in JCVD) moving into what has to be the most dismal, brutalist apartment complex this side of THE RAID. It honestly makes the one in DREDD look cheerful, at least those guys had drugs and a smattering of colors. Little surprise, then, that Chin tries to kill himself on his first night there -- only to be saved by bespectacled cook/ex-vampire hunter Yau (Anthony Chan, also of MR. VAMPIRE fame, and TWIN DRAGONS) at the last minute. Anytime you have a main character who almost dies at the beginning of the movie only to improbably be saved, you’re holding your breath the whole time for fear they’ll pull an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge movie-negating twist on you, but fortunately it’s quickly made clear through the movie’s many impenetrable subplots that specific concrete explanations are so minor a concern for the film that it wouldn’t matter anyway.
Chin, still alive but just as depressed, quickly finds that his new digs are densely populated with eccentric characters and supernatural tomfoolery, particularly the two (count ‘em!) angry female spirits which haunt his apartment. He’d just like to sit around stewing over his lost wife and child, but there are just too many people around --living and dead-- who want something from him. Besides the spooks, you’ve got Auntie Mui (a terrific Hee Ching Paw, John Woo’s BULLET IN THE HEAD, Jet Li’s FEARLESS) and her soon-to-be-undead husband Tung (Richard Ng, numerous Jackie Chan movies), a mysterious sorcerer (Fat Chung, SPOOKY ENCOUNTERS, TO HELL WITH THE DEVIL*), a twitchy single mom (Kara Hui, DRAGON ) and her creepy albino kid. Their intersecting stories and lives gradually weave together into an escalating mess of ghostly menace, and culminate in a wild, magic-fueled martial arts smackdown.
Considering the exotic weirdness and fetishistic, macabre detail director Juno Mak (actor, REVENGE: A LOVE STORY, apparently also a musician and fashion magnate) layers into the movie, it’s a surprise that RIGOR MORTIS is as much about offbeat drama and ambiguous dread as it is about horror. In fact, far from the goofy fun of the MR. VAMPIRE movies, the film it recalls most is the 2000 Korean minor masterpiece BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE by Bong Joon-Ho. Both stories are concerned with bleak apartment structures and the strange, dark characters lurking within, but they both get most of their real mileage out of the actors and a tone of moody, but darkly comic, strangeness. RIGOR MORTIS has a lot more explicit horror than BARKING DOGS does, but even so, the things that linger are the sharp characterizations of the actors and the melancholy but ominous ambiance. The script (by Mak, Philip Yung [AS THE LIGHTS GO OUT], and Lai-Yin [Jill] Leung [REVENGE: A LOVE STORY, the upcoming IP MAN 3) is limited, almost minimalistic, with some limited exposition, but mostly just the bare bones of a story, only enough structure to hang the details on. That leaves most of the heavy lifting to the actors, but that turns out to be the film’s most surprising advantage, since the cast is uniformly terrific. Chan and Paw in particular turn in heartfelt, nuanced performances which belie the simplicity of their narrative roles and create drama with some real heft. The script doesn’t really give us enough detail about Paw’s character Auntie Mui for us to understand why, exactly, she would think it was a good idea to resurrect her deceased husband as a jiangshi, but her haunted, crushing delivery conveys more about her loneliness and desperation than any speech could. Mak’s willingness to simply sit and watch an actor’s face as he gratefully sucks a cigarette or contemplates a sizzling cooking pot adds texture and impact in the gaps between scripted lines.
Mak matches his strong cast with beautiful, sometimes downright flashy visuals which turn even the gray palette into something sharp and evocative (it’s nearly a black-and-white film, save a few flashes of expressionistic red lighting). It’s a startlingly impressive look for a first-time director, and the way in which he delicately weaves quiet comedy, dark drama, disturbing horror, and flashy action is rather miraculous in its ambition and its success. It’s hardly unusual for an East Asian film to sport multiple genres, but Mak corrals them more elegantly and blends them more effectively than many of his peers, especially when it comes to Chinese horror. While I can’t really argue with critics who find the film intellectually a bit hollow, I’m honestly baffled that anyone would complain about such a bounty of goods. I’m probably not familiar enough with the jiangshi genre to get all the meta-jokes which are obviously part of this, but honestly that seems like the least interesting aspect of this production anyway, more of a bittersweet tribute than a reason for its existence. Maybe it started out as a salute to this mostly-departed genre, but the finished product probably has as much in common with the J-horror cycle of the early 2000’s (particularly since Japanese horror maestro Takashi Shimizu [TOMIE: REBIRTH, THE GRUDGE, the interesting-sounding TORMENTED] co-produced along with Mak) as it does with the original jiangshi craze. Really, though, its greatness is a product of its own design more than it is a function of its inspirations. Co-produced by a Japanese auteur, directed by a Hong Kong actor/singer/fashion designer, and ostensibly paying tribute to a decades-old regional horror subgenre, it ends up feeling like none of them particularly. But it’s quite a promising start for a new kind of thing.
The jiangshi genre may have spent the last decades more or less resting in peace, but as these movies have taught us, you can always count on someone new to come along and try to revive the dead. If a new generation of artists can be as flexible and imaginative with these tropes Mak’s film is, I’d say rigor mortis hasn’t set in quite yet.
*And, huh, looks like he played Sherlock Holmes in a movie called THE RETURN OF THE POM POM? That sounds unusual.
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