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Rigor Mortis
|     review    |     notes     |     availability     |

Chin Siu-Ho (left) and Morris Ho (right) meet in Rigor Mortis.


Year: 2013  
Director: Juno Mak Chun-Lung  
Producer: Takashi Shimizu, Juno Mak Chun-Lung  
  Writer: Philip Yung Chi-Kwong, Jill Leung, Juno Mak Chun-Lung
  Action: Jack Wong Wai-Leung
  Cast: Chin Siu-Ho, Anthony Chan, Kara Hui Ying-Hung, Bau Hei-Jing, Chung Fat, Lo Hoi-Pang, Richard Ng Yiu-Hon, Morris Ho, Zip Ho, Oggy Ho, Billy Lau Nam-Kwong
  The Skinny: Stylish update of the Chinese vampire movie that impresses with its assured visuals and postmodern genre nods, while neglecting to justify its eventual descent into pretension. A solid if not particularly substantial directorial debut from Juno Mak.
by Kozo:

Juno Mak, the once-maligned singer and now steady accumulator of artistic cred, makes his directorial debut with Rigor Mortis, a well-made and visually-arresting horror thriller that pays tribute to a unique Hong Kong film genre: the geung si (or Chinese vampire) movie. Mak’s tools are legion: Besides an assist from producer Takashi Shimizu (director of the Juon or Grudge films), Mak pays respect to genre classic Mr. Vampire by bringing back that film’s stars Chin Siu-Ho and Anthony Chan, along with Billy Lau in a minor role. Rigor Mortis even nods to Mr. Vampire’s departed cast members Lam Ching-Ying and Ricky Hui by having them appear via photographs. Add a stylish desaturated look, spiffy visual effects, existential crises and copious meta-references and you have a deliberately postmodern genre update that’s impressive if not entirely accomplished.

Washed up horror film star Siu-Ho (Chin Siu-Ho, essentially playing himself) moves into a desolate, haunted housing estate where a murder-suicide occurred that psychologically scarred surviving housewife Feng (Kara Hui). Meanwhile, the estate houses two Taoist masters who handle real supernatural issues: Brother Yau (Anthony Chan) wards off evil spirits in between serving customers at his canteen, while Gau (Chung Fat a.k.a. the Crazy Moustache Guy from Yes, Madam!) engages in darker mysticism. When seamstress Auntie Mui (Bau Hei-Jing) suffers a tragedy, Gau comes to her aid, using his special skills to bring back a loved one. Settling in, Siu-Ho struggles with his depressed existence and acclimates himself to the estate and its residents, while Gau’s creation slowly comes to life. Or a semblance of life, anyway.

A vampire roaming a housing estate is obviously not a good thing, so Siu-Ho and Brother Yau eventually team for a Taoist takedown involving slow-motion martial arts, blood-powered mysticism and even more desaturated visuals. Rather than make the cultural details – some authentic, some not – accessible to all audiences, Mak allows specifics to remain enigmatic, reducing expository chaff and giving the visuals stronger voice. This emphasis helps smooth over some narrative issues while highlighting the power of the film’s revamped Chinese vampire. Like the famous eighties films, this vampire hops, but in ominous slow motion, and when he needs it he’s fast enough to match Siu-Ho in battle. The blood and violence amped considerably, Mak’s film ably reinvents the genre for a global audience, replacing that loose, somewhat silly Hong Kong Cinema feeling with a stylish and reverent horror-thriller tone.

The copious style and striking visuals help mask some problems, the biggest one being Siu-Ho’s muddled storyline, which is ostensibly the throughline of the film. Siu-Ho’s story is one of personal redemption, but it gets tripped up by uneven development and some last-second, unnecessarily pretentious twists. Neither Mak’s story nor Chin Siu-Ho’s portrayal can give the character earned weight or meaning. The other actors shore things up nicely. Anthony Chan shows great presence in a serious variation on his previous Mr. Vampire character, while Chung Fat and Richard Ng (as a key resident in the building) provide satisfyingly dark counterpoint to their comic histrionics from the eighties. The standout is Bau Hei-Jing, however, who essays her compromised character strongly and gets the film’s most devastating and emotional scene. Juno Mak pulled the strings though, so a hearty thumbs up to him too.

Rigor Mortis could also have benefitted from more humor. The film’s inspirations were loaded with physical and situation comedy, which Mak deliberately avoids for his modern reworking. Not that comedy is necessary for a Chinese vampire film, but the mix of genres and emotions was always one of Hong Kong Cinema’s greatest joys, and Rigor Mortis could use more surprises or emotions to change-up its bleak, foreboding tone. Lacking that, Mak compensates with profanity – especially in the Category III version that played at international fests – and there’s some amusement in seeing an old timer like Richard Ng swear a blue streak. Overall, Rigor Mortis is a triumph of style over substance, with technical polish and visual panache taking precedence over earned emotion and good old-fashioned fun. With the sliding scale in place, that’s a more than respectable achievement. Juno Mak: You’ve come a long way. (Kozo, 11/2013)

Notes: Rigor Mortis was originally released in Hong Kong with a Category IIB theatrical cut that excised a few moments of violence as well as some profanity. A restored Category III cut was released in cinemas shortly after.
• The Hong Kong DVD and Blu-ray of Rigor Mortis contains the Category III cut of the film. The Category III cut also played international festivals.
• This review is based on the Category III cut of Rigor Mortis.
• Juno Mak has spoken of a forthcoming Director's Cut of Rigor Mortis.
  Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Deltamac (HK)
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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