Hong Kong is like paradise for genre film fans, but when it comes to horror cinema this little territory fails remarkably. Sure enough there have been a few good releases lately (there's Dennis Law's Womb Ghost and the Tales from the Dark 2 anthology), but these are exception rather than rule. Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks this is a real shame, as rising star Juno Mak sat down and went all in to give the genre a most welcome boost.
Like many others who've made it in Hong Kong, Mak is somewhat of a homo universalis. He started out in the music industry, won a few awards and went on to try his luck in the movie industry. He immediately got the lead role in (Revenge: A Love Story, which in return landed him the best actor award at Pifan, one of Japan most prestigious genre film festivals. So having done that, Mak went on to write/direct a film of his own. Rigor Mortis is the result and once again Mak is set to make a solid impression, seeing it already earned him a Golden Horse nomination (the Hong Kong equivalent of the Oscars).
There has always been a dark undercurrent running through Mak's work, which comes to fruition quite wonderfully in his first feature film. Rigor Mortis is an ode to the Jiangshi, the hopping undead that are often referred to as Chinese vampires (even though they have very little in common with their Western counterparts). There are no gothic romances, no blood sucking, no fair maidens, not even any counts changing into bats, instead we have coffin-dwellers who wake up at night and hop or float around while looking to steal human souls. Mak updates the creature to modern (and slightly more frightening) standards, assembles some of the old cast from the popular Mr Vampire films and takes it from there.
The story is about a young man (Chin) who moves into an eerie apartment building. On his day of arrival he tries to commit suicide, but is saved by one of his neighbours. But not before being possessed by a twin ghost. Even though Chin doesn't really believe in the supernatural, he has little choice to adapt his beliefs when he learns more about the inhabitants of the building. Add to that a Jiangshi and two Jiangshi hunters and you have all the ingredients for a fun-filled horror flick.
Even though Rigor Mortis is Mak's first feature, he didn't have to make it on a shoe-string budget. The film looks absolutely lush from start to finish, with more than satisfactory CG effects, superb camera work, dark and sharp contrasts and a few neat visual tricks to spice up the look. Mak is assisted by cinematographer Man-Ching Ng, who has a pretty impressive track record himself. Not in the least as director of The House, one of the better Hong Kong horror films of the past 10 years.
The soundtrack, while pretty standard horror fare, is effective and even engaging. It's a moody, brooding affair that rumbles underneath most scenes, periodically peaking for some slight scares. There's even a children's rhyme in there to complete the package. It's definitely not a bad score, but it's nothing too special either. Then again we should probably be happy Mak didn't try to force one of his own songs into the film for extra publicity.
Mak conjured up many familiar faces, most of them coming from the original Mr Vampire films. I'm not familiar with the original series so there's definitely something lost there, but the cast feels clearly at ease with their characters. Siu-hou Chin is a bit bland as the film's lead, then again his role is mostly that of a mere spectator anyway. Anthony Chan makes the biggest impression as the charismatic vampire hunter. There's also a great elongated cameo of Richard Ng I thoroughly enjoyed. The man has aged considerably, but it's still great to see him pop up in films from time to time.
Rigor Mortis follows the traditional outline of the films it was inspired by, though it mixes in some newer, more timely horror elements. No doubt producer Takashi Shimizu had some input there. As someone who watches Hong Kong films on a regular basis there weren't too many surprises, reactions of people unfamiliar with Hong Kong cinema reveal that there are some cultural barriers to cross though. Chinese rituals and genre clichés are probably not as grounded here in the West, which at least explains some resistance to the film.
Get past the cultural oddities though and you'll find an absolutely gorgeous looking genre film, by far one of the best horror films to come out of Hong Kong in a long, long time. Juno Mak is doing pretty good for himself, going through some touch challenges at a young age and coming out stronger than before. I'm already looking forward to his next project, for now though I hope Rigor Mortis gets the appreciation it deserves.