Rigor Mortis (Geung si)

Hong Kong (2013) Dir. Juno Mak

Asian cinema has always delivered a unique take on the horror genre which often leaves us Westerners a little befuddled since the philosophical and spiritual tenets behind the stories aren’t familiar to us. Despite this rather major handicap we can still enjoy the films on a visual, visceral and psychological level, more often than not putting the bells and whistles productions of our US neighbours to shame.

Former pop star turned actor and director Juno Mak delves deep into Chinese spooky folklore for this homage of sorts to the Kung Fu vampire flicks of the 80’s, in this case the seminal Mr. Vampire. To complete this nod of respect, Mak even cast many of the leads from that very film in what is a nightmarish update of the genre that keeps its influences very close to its heart.

A former horror actor Siu-Ho (Chin Siu-Ho) moves into rom 2442 of a crumbling housing estate, the residents of which are a peculiar bunch upon first inspection – such as housewife Feng (Kara Hui) who hangs around outside his room with her albino son Pak (Morris Ho), and elderly janitor Yin (Lo Hoi-pang).

Suffering from depression after the break-up of his marriage and missing his young son, Siu-Ho tries to commit suicide by hanging. As his life saps away two evil spirits appear and try to possess Siu-Ho’s body but are stopped by Brother Yau (Anthony Chan), a former vampire hunter and Taoist master. While Yau explains the history of the room 2442, another Taoist master Gau (Chung Fat) uses his darker magical abilities to help revive the recently deceased Tung (Richard Ng) the husband of seamstress Mui (Bau Hei-Jing), but his motives are less than altruistic.

The themes and cultural references in Rigor Mortis may be distinctly Chinese but there is an air of J-Horror in the presentation, which we can presumably credit to Japanese director Takashi Shimizu (Ju-On: The Grudge) who acts as co-producer of this film. Thus cynical members of the audience can point the finger at Shimizu for the presence of two white skinned, long black haired evil female spirits, a mainstay (and overplayed one) of J-Horror. But don’t be put off by this, they are two very nasty, malevolent and exceptionally frightening sisters whose tragic murder-suicide backstory plays a central role in the overall plot.

Ironically the familiarity of the Sadako lite ghosties is more likely to make this a more palatable experience for non-Chinese audiences while the native mysticism adds a unique flavour and supernatural depth to the proceedings. The Taoist elements behind Yau and Gau’s practices allow for their otherworldly spirit hunting abilities and martial art skills feel congruent to the plot and not just a genre obligation.

It should be noted that Chinese vampires are different to the ones we normally associate with in the West, in that they are not conventional bloodsuckers who turn into bats and hate garlic but are known as “hopping spirits” due to their eerie leaping predatory ways. This was largely designed for a comedic effect but that is not the case here. The vampire that eventually surfaces following Gau’s hijinks doesn’t exactly hop or engender any laughs, instead is effectively and blood curdling scary.

While the story might provide a bit of a challenge in places, the visuals will certainly keep the audience engaged and enthralled, while the horrific violence will please the gore hounds watching. Mak is out to prove himself in his directorial debut and impresses with his keen eye for shot composition and application of camera technique and trickery. Some Wong Kar-Wai influenced slow motion shots are employed, although unlike Wong’s film they serve a purpose here.

Mak has rendered much of the film in a washed out palette which occasionally borders on black and white to allow the impact of the splattering blood and pools of spilled claret to have greater effect. The atmosphere is already one of dour and grave ennui and this dowdy veneer adds so much to creating an uncomfortable environment for both the cast and the viewers.

The two spirits are surrounded by a strange misty hue, with wormlike tendrils dancing about their spectral bodies, presumably the blood and cut entrails from their final moments alive. This, added with the jaunty and frenetic movements of the two actresses helped along with some CGI propulsion, makes for two very disturbing foes for Yau and his newfound partner Siu-Ho and anyone whose souls they wish to possess.

The special effects, which are top notch, and the inventive and stylish photography only play part in creating a unique viewing experience. The cast, made up mostly of veterans from the original Mr. Vampire films, immerse themselves in their roles providing not just the necessary experience to deliver nuanced and credible performances but their collective gravitas adds a weight of emotional investment as the fate of their characters plays out.

Anthony Chan, who played a young Tao priest in Mr. Vampire, comes full circle as the elderly Yau and must be somewhat glad to play the role straight this time round at his current age. Chin Siu-Ho is essentially playing himself and remains a little too expressionless at times but this works to his advantage in the appropriate scenes. Delivering arguably the most impressive turn is Bau Hei-Jing whose character is the most conflicted and tortured of all of them and had this been a mainstream drama, awards would have been thrown at Bau from every corners.

Rigor Mortis is unquestionably a visual spectacle, perhaps at times at expense of the story, but delivers big on the horror front too with its nightmarish scenario, lashings of blood soaked violence and supernatural scares to keep you awake at night. For Juno Mak this can be seen as a personal and artistic triumph, having made a positive mark in his debut as director while redefining the art of the meta-movie homage.