Rigor Mortis (Geung Si): Film Review

"Rigor Mortis"
A lavish, heavy-handed retreading and reinvention of Hong Kong and Japanese horror-film tropes, saved from clinical inhumanity by its veteran cast.

Produced by J-Horror icon Takashi Shimizu, Hong Kong singer-actor Juno Mak’s directorial debut revolves around a suicidal, washed-up actor’s confrontations with supernatural beings in a dilapidated tenement block.

As a first-time filmmaker, the popstar-turned-director Juno Mak has arrived with his influences sewn brashly on his sleeves.

Set in a dank ambience de rigueur to Japanese supernatural flicks –a visual debt probably owed to The Grudge director Takashi Shimizu,Mak’s co-producer here – zombies and shamen made famous by the cult Hong Kong 1980s franchise Mr Vampire runs amok. And in a nod to the metatextual tropes of Scream or Cabin in the Woods, one of the stars of that seminal horror-comedy classic actually appears here as a washed-up version of himself, sucked into what could be his life’s final achievement as he leads the line in a battle between the human and supernatural realms.

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It’s a mix which will be play well to audiences seeking extreme, unflinchingly gory thrills – indeed, a premiere at the Venice Days sidebar will be followed by screenings in Toronto’s Midnight Madness showcase – and also to the Hong Kong cinema aficionados eager to spot some of the city’s veterans in action. Rigor Mortis’ strongest suit lies with its cast. The film comes with lavish (and sometimes distractingly so) digital effects, but it’s the old-timers who are instrumental in injecting humanity and life into the film.

The film begins as strains of Mr Vampire’s haunting folk-tinged theme song play over a shot of a piece of ground strewn with bodies and debris: a charred corpse here, a dying Taoist exorcist there, and finally the bloodied and muddied (and muddled) protagonist turning over – perhaps one last time – as his voiceover begins: “I left this village when I was 13, and became a leading man when I was 16 – I never thought it would be when I hit 50 that I finally become human. They say film stories are absurd – but I think real life is more so.”

The “village” he said he left is not the rustic hamlet ingrained in many a (Western) imagination about traditional Chinese societies, though. As the camera pans upwards at the end of the opening shot, the village is revealed to actually be a tenement block in a government-subsidized housing estate – and it’s here that the main action takes place, as a flashback to the beginning of the tale reveals the lead character moving into of the vacant apartments in the complex.

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As the man unpacks his luggage – complete with costumes from  zombie-horror films and authentic photographs with Chow Yun-fat and Maggie Cheung – he reveals his past as a one-time movie star who has struggled to maintain both his career and his family. Played by the 1980s A-lister Chin Siu-ho, who was one of the on-screen ghostbusters in Mr Vampire, the has-been actor remains nameless throughout the film, until the end when he’s revealed to be – who else? – “Chin Siu-ho”.

After a failed attempt in hanging himself, the washed-up ex-celebrity finds himself living in a community of retirees whiling away their time as they find their days of “being useful” over. Uncle Yau (Anthony Chan Yau, one of Chin’s co-stars in Mr Vampire), the food-stall owner who saved him from the rope, reveals himself to be a former zombie-hunter whose services are no longer sought; Uncle Gau (veteran martial arts actor and choreographer Chung Fat, who has made a fair share of zombie films in the 1980s too), meanwhile is a sage also providing neighbors with the odd guidance and not much else.

Chin’s frequent encounters with the estate’s resident lunatic Yeung Fung (Kara Wai, At the End of Daybreak) leads to the film’s first all-out paranormal activity – a half-baked component which seemingly exists merely to showcase the long-haired, eye-rolling ghouls which is Shimizu’s specialty – but Rigor Mortis’ central line is driven by another more engaging and fully-formed strand, when a kind, soft-speaking seamstress Aunt Mui (Nina Paw Hee-ching) resorts to ever-more desperate (and deadly) measures to bring his husband (Richard Ng) back to life.

Just as most misguided efforts in the name of love, Mui’s attempts only leads to the nurturing of a monster. And it’s from this that Chin is pitted against the beast, in a last chance saloon (or apartment block corridor) to redeem himself and his much-battered image – or self-image, to be exact, as an end-of-film twist which gives a reinvention of the much-used cliché of seeing the past flashing in front of a dying person’s eyes.

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It’s a coda which is curious yet potentially self-defeating, a situation which could have been avoided if the screenplay – co-written by Mak and critic-cum-director Philip Yung and Jill Leung – was more layered with allegory and less dependent on distracting special effects and side plots.

One interesting allegory Mak could have explored more is the (haunted) tenement block as the place people past their prime go to die – with the onscreen version of Chin, which boasts of many similar biographical details of the actor himself, seemingly destined for demise, only to (at least to him) rediscover a sense of worth in what appears to be the margin of society and the dustbins of history.

Here, Mak has provided a platform for Hong Kong cinema’s veterans to shine. And the men here are all eclipsed by Paw’s riveting performance: known for one of the city’s best thespians and an award-winner with Ann Hui’s much-acclaimed 2009 social drama The Way We Are, the actress gives shape to a tortured soul struggling to contain her loss, and to reconcile her horrible deeds so as to prove her love and fulfill her duty as a wife – a situation best manifested in a sustained closed up of Mui breaking down in a mix of fear and self-loathing after a particularly murderous move. Who would have thought that a film called Rigor Mortis could contain such moments of emotional vigor?

Premiere at Venice Days, Sept 4; Toronto, Sept 11

Production Company: Great Sound Creation for a Kudos Film presentation

Cast: Chin Siu-ho, Nina Paw Hee-ching, Anthony Chan, Kara Wai, Richard Ng, Chung Fat

Director: Juno Mak

Producers: Takashi Shimizu, Juno Mak

Executive Producers: Steven Lo, Bernard Lai

Screenwriters: Philip Yung, Jill Leung, Juno Mak

Director of Photography: Ng Kai-ming

Editor: David Richardson

Production Designer: Irving Chen

Costume Designers: Miggy Cheng, Phoebe Wong

Music: Nath Connelly

International Sales: Fortissimo Films

Running Time 101 minutes