Asian horror films nowadays come in two flavors nowadays: the austere ghost stories—or kwaidan—ike Ringu and Ju-On or the hyperactive splatter comedies represented by the likes of Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police. But there’s another tradition that has long since gone out of style: fantasy-tinged, folklore based “hopping vampire” (yes, hopping) films like the 1985 cult hit Mr. Vampire, which Rigor Mortis is an attempt to bring back in slick modern style.
A blatant homage to Mr. Vampire, director Juno Mak’s debut is a stylish but incoherent tribute that is compelling on a purely visual level but nearly unwatchable on a narrative one – coasting on deep-cut cultural references unfamiliar in the states to all but the most obsessive fans (and even then only uses them as a clothesline for a series of sumptuously shot action scenes held together with the barest assemblage of plotline). If you are confused at any point as to what is happening, you won’t be alone.
Rigor Mortis features Mr. Vampire star Chin Siu-Ho as himself, or at least as barely sketched out version of himself, a lonely, washed-up actor who moves into a destitute apartment block to kill himself. Saved by Mr. Yau (Anthony Chan, also a former star of Mr. Vampire), Chin somehow becomes involved with attempts to trap the twin female ghosts who live in his apartment. Meanwhile, elderly Auntie Mui (Nina Paw) uses black magic to raise her cantankerous husband back from the dead. Things do not end well.
For much of it’s first hour, Rigor Mortis is glum, glacially paced and mired in ugly grey tones from its monochrome concrete setting. Occasionally there is in an out of nowhere martial arts fight sequence as Chin or Yau battle the tendril-dripping ghost ladies, but mostly its a series of ill-fitting sequences inexplicably linked together, leaving the viewer bewildered as to what is going on, why is this happening and what does this mean.
Chin’s story is established and then pretty much forgotten about, with no emotional payoff to random flashbacks of his earlier family life. Character motivations change from scene to scene, subplots go nowhere or crisscross in confusing ways and the film stumbles drearily from one fx shot to the next, refusing to give answers or allow us to get our bearings.
That said, the film does work as a visual effects showcase. Mak—a multihyphenate star in Hong Kong—is a stylish director, and he makes the film look good; once you surrender to the inconsistencies of the plot and let the genre flourishes flow over you, there is a certain amount of fun to be had….at least until the film’s confounding, circular ending, which only seems to want to let audiences go on a note of utter mystification.
Perhaps this movie easily digestible in its own home country. Maybe this is simply too culturally specific to be appreciated by American audiences. However, there have been a lot of Asian genre flicks that have crossed over to appreciative audiences here in the states, and they were a lot less baffling then this slick nonsense.
Rigor Mortis – 2.5/5