by Kathie Smith
Hong Kong film has had many peaks and valleys, but certainly one of the peaks was the fervent outpouring of creativity in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that succeeded in redefining genre with an ingenuity that is rarely acknowledged. John Woo, building on themes carved into stone by Chang Cheh, kicked heroic bloodshed into a whole new gear with films like A Better Tomorrow trilogy and The Killer; Tsui Hark, working as both director and producer, was stirring the pot of wuxia fantasy with Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain and The Swordsman; Stephen Chow took mo lei tau (“nonsensical” comedies) to grand and hilarious heights with All for the Winner and A Chinese Odyssey series; and, of course, Jackie Chan (along with Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao) was making mince-meat out of the box office with physical kung-fu comedy, the likes of which people hadn’t seen since Buster Keaton.
The Film Society of Minneapolis/St Paul
Director: Juno Mak
Producers: Juno Mak, Takashi Shimizu
Writers: Jill Leung, Philip Yung
Cinematographer: Ng Kai-Ming
Editor: David Richardson
Music: Nate Connelly
Cast: Chin Sui-Ho, Anthony Chan, Kara Hui, Lo Hoi-Pang, Richard Ng, Nina Paw
Country: Hong Kong
Premiere: August 30, 2013 – Venice Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: June 6, 2014
US Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment
Tucked into this explosion of mass entertainment was a unique slice of horror comedy called geung si—otherwise known as Chinese vampire or, more descriptively, “hopping vampire” movies—made popular by Mr. Vampire (1985) and its subsequent sequels and off-shoots. The plots, such as they were, involved heroic Taoist priests and their supernatural battles with the undead, beings defined by traditional superstitions as well as large doses of silliness. Although the Hong Kong film industry is currently in a sort of identity-crisis lull, Juno Mak—actor, singer, record producer, fashion designer, and now director—tries to reignite the heydays with Rigor Mortis, a stylish reboot as well as unambiguous homage to the Mr. Vampire films. Updated to meet, if not exceed, millennial expectations of production, Rigor Mortis nonetheless delivers a certain amount of flashback fan service by referencing the original in its Chinese title and using two of the original cast members to play meta-enhanced versions of their former characters. As fun as that might sound, Rigor Mortis unfortunately chooses to strip its hopping vampire redux of all the slapstick humor that made the originals so utterly enjoyable, relying instead on a more somber tone with the apparent intention of providing thrills that never quite materialize.
Chin Siu-Ho plays a depressed and washed up horror film actor named Siu-Ho (get it?) who moves into a monolithic apartment complex with the purpose of committing suicide. He brings his old costumes and photos (both allowing for coy nods to Mr. Vampire and Sui-Ho’s previous role) and the memory of his wife and child, but when the time comes to take his own life, Taoist master Uncle Yau (Anthony Chan) saves him from all manner of evil that seem to be interested in his soon to be departed soul. Sui-Ho survives only to find that his new apartment building is rife with ghosts: a pair of adult women haunts his apartment; creepy little children skitter around in the cavernous hallways and stairwells; and a woman quietly busies herself with another Taoist priest to bring her husband back from the dead.
The narrative is something of a red-hot mess (not unlike Mr. Vampire et al.) with one too many Taoist priest and about three too many ghosts, but Rigor Mortis finds its footing in its spirited (no pun intended) sense of detail and level of visual exploitation that gives Under the Skin a run for its money. The vast apartment building seems to be an island with only a handful of residents acting as a post-apocalyptic microcosm that floats between the real and the supernatural. And although you certainly won’t be scared, Sui-Ho’s attempted suicide triggers a surreal spectral fantasy unlike anything this side of Ghostbusters. The ‘80s motifs are spare when it comes to the special effects (even though the vampire, once he emerges, does indeed move around with a levitated hop), but you don’t have to look far to see the influence of producer Takashi Shimizu (the director responsible for The Grudge franchise) with the maligned ghosts crawling and sometimes running on all fours.
The battle between mortal and immortal eventually comes to a crescendo, finding Sui-Ho and Uncle Yau in a fight to the death using a Taoist trap to subdue the ghoulies. With chaos reigning over the story for the majority of the runtime, it’s almost a disappointment when Rigor Mortis delivers an ending in the form of a tidy little package, bow included. For all its lack of scares, it keeps a lively pulse by traveling a completely unpredictable trajectory with an ample supply of blood, brutality, and projectile vomit. Seeping with CGI, though, the movie never really seizes our nerves or emotions, and the characters are little more than mysterious figures in an ambiguous atmosphere. Rigor Mortis is certainly no Mr. Vampire and it may not be the spark that lights a fire on the dead embers of Hong Kong cinema’s better days, but it goes the extra mile for a distinctive (if forgettable) result.