Films, Hong Kong, Horror, Martial arts, Reviews

Rigor Mortis

Leading actor, screenwriter and pop singer Juno Mak turns director with this well-positioned love letter to the Mr. Vampire films of the 80s…

Followers of Juno Mak’s previous efforts as producer and star of Revenge: A Love Story and Let’s Go! with director Ching-Po Wong, as well as his input into the Conroy Chan Chi-Chung-produced, Pang Ho-Cheung-directed Dream Home, will get some idea of what to expect here. Taking the directorial helm he continues on from his last two films, taking a knowing look back at Asian genres and film references – in a sense mirroring Stephen Chow’s work from the 90s and 00s, albeit in a more unremittingly violent way.

Mak has created something very special here: a film that drops enough references to the past to keep die-hard fans happy, but distancing himself enough not to be reliant on them or alienate audiences who have no knowledge of them. And like his previous films, this horror comedy puts the emphasis on the former of those two elements, with enough gore to keep contemporary horror fans happy. Production from horror guru Takashi Shimizu, director and producer of the Ju-on: The Grudge series, and more besides including Shock Labyrinth 3D and Tormented 3D, seems the perfect partner for Mak to help open some of those doors globally and a perfect match in terms of collaborator.

We begin with a hauntingly rearranged version of the theme from Mr. Vampire, as we open on an unnamed man (played by Chin Siu-Ho) surrounded by chaos, destruction and blood; before rewinding to the point he arrived at a daunting, dilapidated tenement block, checking into room 2442 with no intention of checking out (so there, Henley, Frey and Felder). Mak playfully blurs reality and fiction, as Chin plays a washed-up actor a long way from his A-lister days, paralleling his own career as lead in the original Mr. Vampire, The Seventh Curse, Tai Chi Master and Fist of Legend. His room is adorned with real photographs alongside co-stars like Chow Yun-fat and Maggie Cheung.

Estranged from his wife and child, he only intends to stay as long as it takes to tie a rope around his neck. But when his suicide attempt awakens the ghosts of two twins murdered in the room who want to possess his body, neighbour Anthony Chan (Mr. Vampire, Project A II, Armour of God, Miracles, East Meets West) – a vampire-hunting Taoist priest with no vampires left to hunt – saves him with old school kung fu while still dressed (and always dressed) in his dressing gown and boxer shorts.

In the apartment block we find a nod to the Shaw Brothers classic 72 Tenants of Prosperity (also alluded to by Stephen Chow on Kung Fu Hustle) as Chin meets other residents. There’s a housewife Yeung Feng (Kara Hui, Wu Xia, A Chinese Ghost Story (2011), Infernal Affairs II, Dirty Ho, The Brave Archer) scurrying around with her young son, trying to deal with her own tragedy in 2442; Uncle Gau (Chung Faat, Enter The Dragon, Broken Oath, The Prodigal Son, Mr. Vampire Part 2, Winners and Sinners) whose meddling with black magic might not do anyone any good; and the apparently kindly elderly Mui (Pau Hei-Ching, Special ID, Fearless, One Nite in Mongkok, So Close, Bullet in the Head) whose husband Tung (Richard Ng, My Lucky Stars, Wheels on Meals, Mr. Vampire Part 3, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Miracles) goes missing about the time a man-sized coffin turns up hanging in her living room.

Sure enough things are going to go to pot pretty soon, and Chin might be the only person left standing in the way…

With recent roles in Dennis Law’s terminable Vampire Warriors – well, of course! – (prefixed with Lesbian, but only in the UK) and The Lost Bladesman, Chin’s career is not quite as washed-up as it might seem. Though Mak could be said to have been doing most of the flag waving, with minor roles for Chin in both of his previous vehicles. If anything, though Chin was just into his early 20s when he first found major success, he hardly looks a decade older, let alone three, and definitely not all of his 50 years of age. In remarkably good shape, he plays the physical side of his role well, while carrying the film with one of the finest performances of his career.

Reuniting much of the surviving Mr. Vampire cast (the film carries a tribute to late co-stars Ricky Hui and Lam Ching-Ying on the closing credits) alongside co-stars from other films, including Lo Hoi-Pang (Life Without Principle, Sparrow, The Iron Fisted Monk, The Longest Nite) and Billy Lau (Mr. Vampire, My Lucky Stars, Eastern Condors, A Simple Life), perhaps the crowning ingredient of this film is allowing a cast almost entirely made up of Hong Kong veterans loose on screen with no apology. It’s a joy to see these performers on form, bringing such pathos and sympathy to their roles – even when writing of their roles may be somewhat lacking.

Nicely shot by cinematographer Ng Man-Ching (Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon, CZ12, Initial D, Infernal Affairs II), this evades CG becoming too noticeable, with a high quality of digital effects, as well as keeping the fight choreography by Jack Wong (The Bounty, Revenge: A Love Story, Accident, Hitman) fast, interesting and visually imaginative. Unlike the miserable Fairy Tale Killer, the films high gore quotient effectively sticks two fingers up to the Mainland Chinese audience. It’s only at points when the pace drops a little that the film threatens dragging; Chin’s interaction with Yeung Feng’s son is meant to add humanity to his role, but Mak reveals quite a wicked streak in regards to the often ‘untouchable’ nature of young innocents.

Sidestepping the unfortunate salaciousness of Revenge that marred an otherwise solid premise (the rape scene with Japanese soft porn actress Sora Aoi was never going to go well) or the heavy reliance used in Let’s Go! on a reference point that doesn’t travel well outside of Asia or Italy (1980s Japanese superhero anime Space Emperor God Sigma), Mak has improved on his previous efforts immensely. He pitches the reference points perfectly, so while it will do audiences no harm to be unaware of the Mr. Vampire series, those who know will be giggling to themselves throughout. (Though I would have been happy to see more hopping!) Once again a Hong Kong film finds its strength in self-reverence.

Like many Asian film fans over the age of 30/35, I can trace my interest back to the Jonathan Ross presented series of Chinese Ghost Stories shown late at night on Channel 4 in 1990, which included Mr. Vampire. Elsewhere that film built up a following in the West from the late 80s, as well as being enormously popular throughout Asia – particularly in Japan where it inspired a video game and a vampire craze with toys and products. Mak’s loving tribute to one of Hong Kong’s most iconic exports might well be a real winner on the global market.

Rigor Mortis played as part of the London Film Festival 2013.

Note: The subtitles on the version that played at the London Film Festival missed out translating important text near the end of the film, where the character is named explicitly as Chin Siu-Ho. I hope whoever picks this up for UK distribution fixes that!

About the author

Andy H
Founder of easternKicks.com, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »
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