Film Review – Rigor Mortis
I am not a huge fan of Hong Kong Horror films, but I’ve seen and enjoyed some of the classics like Bride With the White Hair. I’ve never had the pleasure of enjoying the Mr. Vampire (1985) series, which contains at least four films that I know about. I was a little hesitant to watch Juno Mak’s directorial debut, Rigor Mortis, because it is billed as a tribute to the Mr. Vampire series – even using some of the same actors from the eighties. I needn’t have worried though, Rigor Mortis stands as a complete story, and while it may reference the other films, it makes sense on it’s own. While I did find myself occasionally confused, that might have more to do with my ignorance of Chinese mythology, religious practices, and supernatural beliefs, than any opacity in the storytelling. (There is one section where that is not true, but I’ll talk about it later.) It’s a great horror film, and you do not need to have knowledge of the history of the genre to enjoy it.
Chin Siu-Ho (Chin Siu-Ho) is a depressed actor who has rented an apartment in a somewhat creepy-looking tenement building. The first thing he does after getting rid of the nosey building guard is try to hang himself, and in doing so wakes something terrible inhabiting his living space – the ghosts of twin sisters who had previously died there. Siu-Ho is saved by Yau (Anthony Chan), who not only cuts him down, but is able to dispel the ghosts, at least temporarily. Turns out, Yau is a vampire hunter turned chef; Vampires are afraid of glutinous rice, and when he stopped having vampires to fight, he decided to cook the rice he always had on hand. Siu-Ho meets more of his neighbors, including Auntie Mui (Nina Paw), who experiences a horrible loss when her beloved husband (Richard Ng) dies. She cannot accept the inevitable, so pays a visit to the building necromancer, who does his best to bring her husband back. But the combination of a body without a soul and twin souls without a body spell trouble for all the inhabitants in the building.
This is a great film. Yeah, there were some parts where I did not follow everything single thing that was going on, but I really like Italian giallo horror movies, and I never have any idea what the hell is happening in them. For the most part, everything was pretty clear. While it is definitely a plot driven movie, atmosphere is king. The whole building oozes despair and one gets the feeling that there are a lot more ghosts hanging around than are dealt with in this story. Everybody has a sad tale to tell, and their collective sorrow seems to feed the unseen occupants. That’s not to say there is no humor; the film has some very offbeat funny moments. Yau spends the entire movie – fight scenes and in the kitchen – wearing a wife beater, boxers, and an open robe. (His hair is impeccable though.) But darkness is the theme here, and even the most beloved inhabitants can act in horrible ways. Auntie Mui’s desperation to have her husband back causes her to do some pretty bad things. And as good as all of the acting is, Nina Paw has the standout performance for me. She is completely in love with her grumpy husband and will do whatever it takes to have him with her again. She is both horrifying and heart wrenching.
For all that I loved this movie – and I did love it quite a bit – there is a little coda at the end that annoyed the hell out of me by casting doubt on whether anything that went before actually happened. (Is that a spoiler? I don’t think so because it doesn’t give any good plot details away.) I hate that kind of stuff; just own what you’re making. And, to add insult to injury, it’s pretty vague and hard to understand. It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the film as a whole, but I did roll my eyes and put it out of my mind. As far as I’m concerned, it never happened.
One interesting detail about this film is that it was co-produced by Takashi Shimizu (The Grudge) and his influence is felt here in a very good way. The twin spirits have a very Japanese horror film look to them (they join their genre sisters with long black hair), and the blending of styles really works. This movie is creepy, violent, funny, and sad, and I enjoyed the hell out of almost every moment of it. If you get a chance to see it on a big screen, you should. But it works on a smaller one, and if you are into horror at all, I would put this on your must-see list.