If you were a fan of Hong Kong cinema in the '80s and '90s, you no doubt have vivid memories of the Jiangshi, perhaps better known to English-speaking viewers as the Chinese "hopping" vampire. Pop star-turned director Juno Mak certainly does, and his feature directorial debut Rigor Mortis offers a melancholic eulogy to the wave of films that made stars of actors like Lam Ching-Ying and Ricky Hui (both of whom Mak dedicates his movie to in the closing credits).
Yet despite smartly populating this loving homage with veteran actors who built their careers battling the undead in films like Mr. Vampire, this elegiac, special-effects-laden melodrama seems more informed by the downbeat ghost stories of Takashi Shimizu than the playful antics of Encounters of the Spooky Kind and its ilk. Perhaps it's simply a sign of the times, but while Mak deserves praise for circumventing the traditional teens-in-peril approach for something of greater substance in his debut, the fact is that there's little fun to be had in this dour endeavor. The irony is that, in attempting to sidestep the old traditions, he has inadvertently allowed himself to lapse into the post-Grudge/Ringu clichés that had already run out of steam by the time The Grudge 2 hit screens back in 2006.
As the story opens, we follow despondent ex-actor Chin Siu-hou (essentially playing himself) as he retires to a derelict tenement building. Once settled, Chin wastes no time in tying one end of a rope to his sturdy ceiling fan and the other tightly around his neck. Shortly after taking a long step off a short stool, Chin is dangling on the edge of death when his neighbor Yau (Anthony Chan) bursts in and cuts him down. The orphaned son of a Taoist monk, Yau now spends his days cooking glutinous rice for his motley crew of neighbors, the likes of whom include elderly seamstress Auntie Mui (Nina Paw), her cynical love Uncle Tung (Richard Ng), mysterious Gau (Chung Fat), kindly security guard Uncle Yin (Lo Hoi-Pang), and traumatized housewife Feng (Kara Wai) and her albino son Pak.
It soon becomes frighteningly apparent that this particular building has a very dark history, and as a pair of vengeful twin ghosts cast a sinister shadow over the proceedings, a sudden tragedy leaves Auntie Mui seeking the help of black magician Gau in cheating death. Meanwhile, a terrifying convergence of supernatural forces is about to take place, and the only ones strong enough to stop it are Chin and Yau.
From its opening shot of bodies strewn across cement and embers drifting in the air like snowflakes, Mak's directorial debut drips with dark style and suffocates with its oppressive atmosphere. Even if you didn't know he had a background in pop, Rigor Mortis' mise-en-scéne looks exactly like a music video. It also leaves no doubt that we're no longer in Mr. Vampire territory here. That's both a good thing and a bad thing: Had Mak attempted to recapture the delightfully creepy, escapist vibe of the Jiangshi classics he grew up on, he'd at best be cashing in on nostalgia, and at worst lacking inspiration with his first film out of the gate. Together with co-screenwriters Philip Yung and Jill Leung, Mak has crafted a meditation on the passing of an era. It's a respectable approach, to be sure, and the welcome sight of those familiar faces shows an endearing sincerity that won't be lost on those in the know.
Still, Rigor Mortis is a difficult film to get into, in large part because Mak, Yung, and Leung front-load the movie with so much despair, but also because it takes quite a bit of time to get moving. The impressive visuals go a long way in holding our attention, but when the very first thing your protagonist does is attempt suicide, the audience instinctively creates an emotional barrier that's tough to overcome. Eventually (and impressively), Mak and company do manage to break that barrier, largely thanks to an impressive cast who help the film strike just the right tone: As Chan offers a dash of levity to the gloomy proceedings, Paw balances it with a sense of mourning that sets the plot in motion (not to mention provides the movie with its rawest and most emotionally stirring scene). Meanwhile, as the neighbor who dabbles in the dark arts, Fat infuses the film with an air of malevolent mystery that feels perfectly suited to Mak's necrotic visual scheme.
Languid pacing and lack of fun aside, the biggest problem that many are likely to have with Rigor Mortis is also the most valid one -- simply put, it isn't scary. The driving factor behind the success of the original wave of Jiangshi films was their ability to frighten us, disarm us with humor, and then -- at precisely the right moment -- strike back with a horror that was even darker than before. Despite Mak's obvious and abiding love for this once-thriving horror subgenre, somewhere along the way that invigorating sense of playfulness was cast aside. In its place, we're given a funeral dirge. Though it's a respectable one, fans will probably wonder how much fun the movie could have been if he had decided to celebrate the thing he loved instead of laying flowers on its grave. It's a beautiful bouquet, but like a wreath from a funeral home, it reeks of death.