Studio: Well Go USA
Director: Juno Mak
Writer: Philip Yung, Jill Leung, Juno Mak
Producer: Takashi Shimizu, Juno Mak
Stars: Chin Siu Ho, Kara Wai, Nina Paw, Anthony “Friend” Chan, Richard Ng, Lo Hoi Pang, Chung Fat
A washed-up movie star moves into a rundown tenement to commit suicide, but becomes embroiled in a supernatural mystery connecting all of the building’s residents.
Chinese thriller “Rigor Mortis” has an Asian flavor very similar to the J-horror subgenre, which should come as no surprise since its co-producer is “Ju-On: The Grudge” franchise director Takashi Shimizu. Here he partners with Hong Kong pop star turned filmmaker Juno Mak for a border-blending fusion of Japanese ghost story and Cantonese vampire fiction spiked with sensationalized martial arts action as the cherry on top. While the cohesiveness of a concept that layered occasionally wanders absent-mindedly, the sumptuous cinematic flourishes always remain visually appealing.
Siu-Ho Chin plays a fictionalized version of himself. Once renowned as a fan-favorite film star, the formerly famous “Mr. Vampire” actor settles into a dilapidated public tenement where he plans to escape the pain of a broken career and a broken marriage by tying a noose around his neck. When a well-meaning neighbor thwarts his suicide attempt, Siu-Ho is subsequently entangled in a sinister mystery after learning that the unassuming apartment building is actually a hotbed of supernatural activity.
Director and co-writer Juno Mak has a clear affinity for all manner of Asian themes in genre entertainment. His mixture of dark-haired vengeful ghosts draped in flowing white sheets (yurei), zombified vampires resurrected by Taoist dark arts (jiangshi), and hyper-stylized kung-fu fight sequences (wuxia) is delivered with an enormous amount of respect for the traditions that spawned the subgenres. Through that sincerity, Mak fashions these elements into a kaleidoscopic dark fantasy epic that feels concurrently familiar as well as fresh.
With threads involving possession, black magic, and reanimated corpses, as well as broader themes of redemption, loneliness, and overcoming personal struggles, “Rigor Mortis” bites off quite a bit of material both visceral and cerebral. It may not be more than the movie can chew, although some mouthfuls are definitely swallowed whole while others are torn through by the teeth for far longer than they need to be.
The greatest justified criticism of the film is that it balloons into such open-ended territory by the end that Mak loses sight of the story in moments, favoring his focus on artful camera movements and eye-popping theatrics. There is still enough happening plot-wise that style never fully drowns substance, even when the content swallows more than one lungful of water while trying to catch its breath.
Along with cinematographer Ng Kai Ming, Juno Mak also overfeeds on the eye candy, and to a point that is arguably in the favor of self-indulgence as opposed to storytelling motivation. Mak and Ming employ a fair number of music video techniques replete with speed-altered interpretive montages of flowers blooming, strawberries molding, and water droplets splashing in slow motion. Blood sprays dot the lens and ceiling-mounted cameras similarly go for points of view with little purpose other than to “look cool.” Yet as unnecessary as some of the extraneous flair is, it is hard to argue how high they elevate the production value into giving “Rigor Mortis” a cinematic aesthetic that is unrivaled by movies with similar scopes and budgets.
The industrial cold metal look with its muted grey tones is perfectly synched to the hypnotic world of a haunted apartment building that seems to exist in an otherworldly purgatory. As an experience of sight and sound, the film has a razor-sharp bite that leaves a lasting impression in the mind’s eye. Even though it may have a story that loses its linearity, you would be hard pressed to find a sleeker looking and more slickly produced horror film from a first-time feature director than Juno Mak’s “Rigor Mortis.”
NOTE: The film's Cantonese title is “Geung si” and the Mandarin title is “Jiang shi.”
Review Score: 80