For those who embrace horror movies from around the world, Hong Kong’s 2013 production titled Rigor Mortis is a special treat. Although those unfamiliar with Chinese vampires and ghosts may find the plot of Rigor Mortis a little too scattered and difficult to digest after just one sitting, those who have delved into the mythologies and movies made in China and Japan will enjoy the evolution of the mythology presented herein. Gory, violent, and hideous, but also beautiful, understated, and haunting—these two sets of words complement each other when attempting to describe facets of Rigor Mortis.
Written (in collaboration with Phillip Yung and Jill Leung) and directed by Juno Mak, a singer and record producer turned actor and filmmaker, Rigor Mortis takes inspiration from the film series Mr. Vampire, a horror-comedy that ran from 1986 to 1992. Although there are subtle bits of humor throughout Rigor Mortis, the film goes for the throat, reveling in despondence and breathtaking moments of violence and horror.
The story centers on a man named Chin (Chin Siu Ho, playing a version of himself), a washed-up actor who has recently become estranged from his wife and son. Chin shows up at a dilapidated apartment complex, where he says those who are prepared to die live out their last days. After several days, Chin attempts to commit suicide, only to be saved by Yau (Antony Chan), a food-stall operator who also happens to be a retired vampire hunter. As Chin struggles with his own inner demons, he comes to realize that his apartment is now haunted by twin female ghosts. The man who raped one of the twins (leading to the death of the man and the twins) left behind a wife and son, both of whom often come by and disturb Chin.
One of Chin’s neighbors is Auntie Mui (Nina Paw), whose husband Uncle Tung (Richard Ng) one day accidently falls down the tenement’s stairwell to his death. Distraught, Auntie Mui contracts a practitioner of black magic who promises to bring back her husband from the dead. Sadly, Uncle Tung becomes a vampire with a voracious appetite, one that Mui must satiate. To make matters worse, the twin ghost demons take over the vampire, using it to wreak havoc throughout the apartment. It is up to Chin, with a capable assist from Yau, to put a stop to the hopping vampire menace.
Produced by Takashi Shimizu (fans of The Grudge) will recognize some of his signature touches in this movie), Rigor Mortis is a serious attempt at evoking horror using a jiangshi, a hopping vampire. Such a creature has been used to great effect in comedies, but in Rigor Mortis the vampire is not one bit funny, particularly when taken over by the demonic ghost twins, who themselves are augmented by some stellar CGI effects.
Although hard to follow, this movie is filled with great set pieces of horror. All the actors accord themselves well, delivering at times what comes off as heavy-handed dialogue in a way that feels emotional and credible. Nina Paw as Auntie Mui in particular is a delight to watch as she struggles with the idea that her husband is now a bloodthirsty vampire—but still her husband of several decades. The direction is tight and the special effects are a joy to behold, principally because all the design and CGI works to propel the plot forward. There is little flash here, with practical effects taking center stage and CGI used to sweeten such scenes even more.
Those unfamiliar with Chinese folklore/mythology will struggle through many of the nuances in this movie—worse off will be those who are unfamiliar with the Chinese horror movie genre, in particular the film series Mr. Vampire. The film’s extended coda, which reveals that Chin is really dead and his teenaged son shows up to claim him, will definitely confuse many viewers. Indeed, there have been various interpretations of the movie’s underlying plot and theme.
My theory is relatively simple: Rigor Mortis is intended as a new wave in Hong Kong horror filmmaking. Gone is the era of the horror-comedy, with stylized horror taking its place. The death of Chin is really a revitalization of an archetype (perhaps through his son), one that lives in a very violent but still redeemable environment. Indeed, the movie feels like Chin’s final battle in his own mind before passing the torch to a new generation.
For those along for the ride, Rigor Mortis is fun and entertaining. Just remember, be sure to always carry a handful of glutinous rice in your pocket. You never know. . . .