Film Review: Juno Mak’s “Rigor Mortis”

By Christopher Bourne

A very popular film genre in 1980s Hong Kong was the “geung si,” or “Chinese hopping vampire” movie. Including such examples as “Encounters of the Spooky Kind” and “Mr. Vampire,” as well as the latter film’s numerous sequels and offshoots, these were humorous and often rather campy films based on Chinese folklore. Now pop singer turned actor turned writer-director Juno Mak has created an homage to these films and the actors they made famous with his newest film “Rigor Mortis,” his directorial debut.

Mak’s homage, however, is of an unusual sort; despite the fact that the film’s Chinese title is “Geung Si” – akin to, say, calling a western “Western” – Mak has stripped away all the humor and camp elements, delivering a rather grim and downbeat film, with a suicidal man as its protagonist and supporting characters whose lives are hardly more cheerful. Also, while a vampire does indeed make an appearance, “Rigor Mortis” is much more of a ghost story than a vampire movie. Furthermore, while Mak references Hong Kong film history by his casting of veteran actors, some of whom came out of retirement for this film, its local flavor is compromised stylistically by its strong resemblance to Japanese horror films. This no doubt is because one of the producers is Takashi Shimizu, who, as director of The Grudge and other iconic works of that ilk, is very closely associated with J-horror. Mak’s emphasis on the darker aspects of the “geung si” genre ensures that has the same relationship with 80s films of the genre that Christopher Nolan’s Batman films have to the 60s TV series. And similarly to Nolan, Mak clearly sees his take on these films as more modern and artistic than its genre progenitors.

“Rigor Mortis” is all moody atmosphere and dark, subdued colors, and this is the environment into which steps the film’s protagonist, Chin Siu-ho (who starred in the original “Mr. Vampire” and plays a fictionalized version of himself), a depressed, washed-up actor forgotten by both the film industry and the larger society. He trudges through the streets, lamenting on his miserable existence, and ends up at a run-down tenement, where he plans to die. Soon after he unpacks, he tries to hang himself his apartment’s ceiling fan, but is cut down at the last moment by Uncle Yau (Anthony Chan, another “Mr. Vampire” star), a long-time resident who runs a nearby food stall. Uncle Yau is also a former Taoist vampire hunter whose services are no longer sought for this purpose.

After being saved from this suicide, Chin gets caught up in the problems of the other tenement inhabitants. The building is frequently haunted by the spirits of those who have died or been murdered. Most of the building’s current residents, most of whom are older folk, are essentially living ghosts themselves, tucked away in this crumbling place, forgotten by the rest of society. Besides Uncle Yau, there are other people in the building whose stories take over the narrative, relegating Chin’s story to the sidelines for large stretches of the film. Yeung Feng (Kara Hui) used to live in Chin’s apartment; she survived a murder-suicide which occurred there and psychologically wounded her. She now wanders the apartment, half-crazed, with her young son Pak, who has white hair. They survive off the food offering left for ancestors outside the other residents’ apartments. Gau (Chung Fat) is a local temple master who also performs exorcism and other dark mystic arts. Seamstress Auntie Mui (Nina Paw) and her grouchy, cantankerous husband Tung (Richard Ng) frequently argue, but are nonetheless a devoted couple. When Tung dies after falling down the stairs, Mui is devastated and asks Gau to help bring him back to life. Mui becomes quite ruthless, willing to sacrifice others to bring her husband back. Tung indeed comes back to life, but as a creature that is far less recognizable human.

All this leads to a climactic showdown where Chin and Uncle Yau team up to battle paranormal creatures terrorizing the apartment, and the film itself ends in an unexpected twist which brings the entire narrative full-circle and completely upends all that came before it.

“Rigor Mortis” has expertly conceived and handsome-looking visual effects, and Mak continues the affinity with somber and macabre narrative material that he established in two previous films as an actor: “Dream Home” and “Revenge: A Love Story,” the latter which he also co-wrote. However, as a director, Mak unfortunately overloads his film with such an oppressively downbeat and self-consciously arty and atmospheric moodiness that it’s too often a suffocating drag to watch. Also, for a film that’s ostensibly a horror film, it’s not very scary.

What mostly saves this film from being a merely unedifying genre exercise is the fine acting from the veteran cast, all of whom still manage to make their characters interesting personalities, even as the unfocused and structurally unsound script (written by Philip Yung, Jill Leung, and Juno Mak) often hampers their best efforts. Especially impressive is the performance by Nina Paw (who was previously in Ann Hui’s fine observational film “The Way We Are”), who gives the most compelling and emotional portrayal in the film, of a woman driven by grief who goes to extreme ends to regain the life she used to live with her loved one.

“Rigor Mortis” is now playing at the Village East Cinemas, and will screen on July 4 as a double feature with the original 1985 film “Mr. Vampire” at the New York Asian Film Festival.

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