Rigor Mortis is Juno Mak’s debut as a feature film director. Mak, known for acting in and co-writing Revenge: A Love Story (2010) has chosen to make a homage to the 80s Chinese “geung see” (Mr Vampire) films. Mak also wrote the film and co-produced it alongside Takashi Shimizu, director of Ju-on and it’s English language remake, The Grudge.
Neither a prequel, sequel nor reboot, Rigor Mortis is more of a bold re-imagining of the genre, borrowing motifs from Mr Vampire and the films that followed it, using many of the same actors and drawing upon the cinematic legacy of “geung see” as it influenced filmmakers, especially in Japan.
While all the elements of the genre are present, such as the female vampire who is the spirit of a rape/murder victim, Mak has chosen to give the characters roles that often invert their function in the original films. The action hero (Siu-hou Chin, playing a fictionalised version of himself) moves slowly through much of the film, weighed down by the legacy of his failed career. The four-eyed priest (Anthony Chan as Yau) is not a comic protagonist, but more the dark, tragic and at times phlegmatic heart of the story. This allows Mak to be true to the genre’s heritage but also refresh and update it for a new audience who might not be familiar with the originals.
What confronts us, over a mostly fast paced 105 minutes is a creepy, bloody, disconcerting, bizarre and visually stunning piece of cinema. Over 600 CGI shots and a year of post-production went into the making of Rigor Mortis and it shows; the film looks and sounds amazing.
But, this isn’t just style over substance. In his own words, Mak sought to “explore the fear of being forgotten.” In one of the most telling moments, Yau asks what becomes of the vampire hunter when there are no more vampires to hunt. Given the changes in Hong Kong today, and especially the plight of its poorer classes, one wonders if Mak is also asking; what becomes of Hong Kong when it’s people and their culture are so quickly being forgotten. For example, Hong Kong’s street food stalls, called Dai pai dong, are central to the plot of Rigor Mortis yet rapidly disappearing from the streets of the city itself. And, the tower block in which the film is set evokes in dark ways, the cramped, tiny and non-descript apartments many working poor and elderly are forced to call home.
Despite a somewhat forced epilogue, this is a cool, breath-taking, brutal and inspired piece of film-making. Rigor Mortis asks us to consider what it means to have the ghosts walking amongst us; not the just the mythic creatures of the night, but the haunting memories of better times, the cultural rituals we pay lip service to but no longer understand and the way the once proud, or at least loved parts of our cities and our cultures slowly erode and slip from view. Have we really made peace with our past or will it rise up to challenge and ultimately crush us?