Hong Kong, 2013, colour, 2.35:1, 101 mins.
Director: Mai Junlong 麦浚龙 [Juno Mak].
Veteran-heavy apartment horror is poorly written and too often arty for its own sake.
Hong Kong, the present day. Separated from his wife (Lin Huiqian) and alienated from his son (Liu Zechen), has-been film star Qian Xiaohao (Qian Xiaohao), almost penniless, takes a flat in an old housing estate and tries to hang himself from the ceiling fan. The long-unoccupied flat, No. 2442, is haunted by spirits which do battle for his body as he hangs between life and death; at the last moment he’s apparently rescued by veteran Daoist vampire-hunter You (Chen You), who runs a nearby foodstall. Other inhabitants of the estate include Yan (Lu Haipeng), the sole security guard, who knows everything about everything; Jiu (Zhong Fa), master of the local temple and a specialist in the dark arts; the devoted old couple of seamstress Mei (Bao Qijing) and her grouchy husband Dong (Wu Yaohan), a retired doctor; and Yang Feng (Hui Yinghong) and her young, white-haired son Xiaobai (He Guangrui). Yang Feng used to live in No. 2442 but after a shocking incident there she’s now half-crazed and doesn’t dare cross the threshhold. She exists by eating offerings of food to ancestors outside people’s front doors. After Dong apparently falls down the stairs and dies, Mei gets Jiu to preserve his body in order to resurrect him in seven days’ time. Meanwhile, Jiu also manages to exorcise No. 2442 by trapping the evil spirits of two twin girls (He Kangwen, He Jianwen) in a wardrobe. But as the day of Dong’s “resurrection” approaches, and Yang Feng accidentally lets loose the twin evil spirits when searching for Xiaobai one day, everything starts to go horribly wrong.
Loaded with veterans from the Hong Kong film world, and steeped in the same retro nostalgia as so many of the territory’s movies are nowadays, Rigor Mortis 僵尸 is an apartment-block horror that’s simply too arty for its own good. First-time feature director Mai Junlong 麦浚龙 [Juno Mak], 29, is a gilded singer-cum-fashionista who recently diversified into acting with Revenge: A Love Story 复仇者之死 (2010) and Let’s Go! 保卫战队之出动喇！朋友！ (2011), both for director Huang Jingfu 黄精甫 [Wong Ching-po]. He sincerely sees the film as a tribute to the Hong Kong “hopping vampire” horror-comedies of the 1980s – best personified by the Mr. Vampire 僵尸先生 series, produced by Hong Jinbao 洪金宝 [Sammo Hung] – that he grew up watching (see poster, left). En route, however, Mai has stripped out all of their comedy, added in visual effects that owe more to J-horror than local traditions (Shimizu Takashi 清水崇, director of The Grudge 呪怨, 2002, jointly produced) and aimed the movie at a much more up-market audience than the originals ever were. Added to which, the “vampire” angle occupies only a small part of the film.
Looked at – more objectively – as a strand of New Asian Horror, Rigor Mortis is fine on an acting level, scrappy on a script level, and registers so-so on the frightometer. Among the performers, it’s a special delight to see Chen You 陈友 [Anthony Chan] – drummer with 1970s band The Wynners 温拿, and director of the classic A Fishy Story 不脱袜的人, 1989 – as a veteran Daoist vampire-hunter who now runs a foodstall; now 60, Chen brings an authority and physical presence that carry much of the film. Fellow veterans Bao Qijing 鲍起静 [Paw Hee-ching] and (briefly) Wu Yaohan 吴耀汉 [Richard Ng] contribute colour as a devoted old couple in the same musty housing block, and onetime action villain Zhong Fa 钟发 ditto, but none of them has Chen’s screen heft. Younger veteran Hui Yinghong 惠英红 [Kara Hui], now well settled into horror movies at this stage of her career, largely wanders around looking mad, fraught, or both, while Qian Xiaohao 钱小豪 (from the original Mr. Vampire 僵尸先生, 1985) plays a washed-up actor called Qian Xiaohao and registers almost no presence at all.
Qian’s lack of profile in the film – starting as its protagonist-narrator and then being relegated to the sidelines or simply vanishing for big chunks – exemplifies the film’s central problem: the script by Weng Ziguang 翁子光 [Philip Yung], Liang Liyan 梁礼彦 [Jill Leung] (Revenge: A Love Story) and Mai has little continuity or sense of organic growth, establishes no clear leading character for the viewer to identify with, and throws in visual effects which have no basis or backgrounding in the story. Though often striking, they’re no more than that – visual ideas without any connection or explanation – and thus not as effective as they should be.
That’s a shame, as some care has been taken with the effects and they’e generally well executed. The same goes for the widescreen photography by Wu Wenzheng 伍文拯 and art direction by Zhang Yiwen 张伊雯, both stressing musty, subdued colours and autumnal or grey light that create a self-contained world of their own, with exterior Hong Kong hardly seen. Set almost entirely within the apartment block or nearby covered alleys, and heavily peopled with oldies, Rigor is a Hong Kong film, like Gallants 打擂台 (2010) or A Simple Life 桃姐 (2011), that looks back rather than forwards. It’s actually more effective in its quieter moments when the cast is allowed to do its own character schtick; as a horror movie, it’s untidily assembled and carries a strong whiff of a vanity production.
Mai dedicates the film to the memory of the “hopping vampire” genre’s two other best-known actors, Lin Zhengying 林正英 (1952-97) and Xu Guanying 许冠英 [Ricky Hui] (1946-2011). The Chinese title, popularly translated as “hopping vampire”, more accurately means “zombie”.
Presented by Kudos Films (HK). Produced by Kudos Films (HK).
Script: Weng Ziguang [Philip Yung], Liang Liyan [Jill Leung], Mai Junlong [Juno Mak]. Original story: Mai Junlong [Juno Mak]. Photography: Wu Wenzheng. Editing: David Richardson. Music: Nate Connelly. Art direction: Zhang Yiwen. Costume design: Zheng Xiuxian, Huang Jiayi. Sound: Mai Zhi’an, Ye Junhao. Action: Huang Weiliang [Jack Wong]. Visual effects: Chen Zhidao (Herbgarden).
Cast: Qian Xiaohao (Qian Xiaohao), Hui Yinghong [Kara Hui] (Yang Feng), Bao Qijing [Paw Hee-ching] (Mei), Chen You [Anthony Chan] (You), Lu Haipeng (Yan, security guard), Wu Yaohan [Richard Ng] (Dong), Zhong Fa (Jiu), Lou Nanguang (rice-shop owner), Gao Junwen (Yang Feng’s husband), He Guangrui (Xiaobai, Yang Feng’s son), He Kangwen, He Jianwen (female twin ghosts), Zeng Bo (fat aunt), Lin Huiqian (Qian Xiaohao’s wife), Liu Zechen (Qian Xiaohao’s son), Feng Guocheng (You’s father), Lu Peiqian (young You), Zhang Yingfu, Yang Yiyi.
Premiere: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days), 4 Sep 2013.
Release: Hong Kong, 24 Oct 2013.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 1 Sep 2013.)