Friday, February 21, 2014

Rigor Mortis – review

Director: Juno Mak

Release date: 2013

Contains spoilers

The Chinese vampire, the kyonsi (or spelling variants thereof), has perhaps had a lamentable un-life in films. For every classic film such as Mr Vampire there are rather more that are lower quality. The figure itself can attract ridicule, the hopping motion the vampire makes can attract derision and the Chinese lore can be misunderstood by Western audiences – but it should, ultimately, be a creature of horror not comedy. It is perhaps little wonder that some Chinese filmmakers have moved to a more Western style vampire.

the film has a whole lot of style
The Japanese, however, seem to have revived the kyonsi recently. The kitschy comedy Hao! Hao! Kyonshi Girl featured the creatures but was as much to do with the Japanese idol scene as actual vampires. The producers of Rigor Mortis are Takashi Shimizu, who was behind the Ju-on series, and director Juno Mak, bringing a sense of both Japan and China to the table. Mentioning Mr Vampire was deliberate, however, as this is in tribute to that film (and the whole kyonsi genre) and a production still of Mr Vampire’s cast is visible during this film.

Yau in the aftermath
The film opens in the aftermath of a battle. We see the body of Aunty Mui (Hee Ching Paw), against a wall sits Yau (Anthony Chan, Mr vampire and Mr Vampire 4) who wearily smokes a cigarette, looking battered, and on the floor, covered in clay, Siu-hou Chin (himself, Mr Vampire, Vampire Vs Vampire, Chinese Vampire Story, The Seventh Curse & Vampire Warriors) looks to be dead until he rolls over.

Chin arrives
The film follows the events from Chin moving into a monolithic, decaying tenement block, up to the battle. Chin is an actor who had some success in the past but is all out of luck. He enters the shambling, almost post-modern Gormenghast, apartment complex and heads to his new home. In the lift he sees an albino kid, Pak, who has been egged (presumably by other children – we never find out). Chin reaches his apartment, 2442, and it is chained closed. The only security guard the building has, Uncle Yin (Hoi-Pang Lo), comes along and unlocks the outer security door. He knocks before entry and makes great play about lighting incense and asking any spirits to play nice.

one last listen
After unpacking his case, mainly memorabilia including a couple of film costumes, the film cuts to Chin who has put dust covers through the barren apartment, is stood on a stool, has a noose around his neck and a child's drawing of a watch on his wrist. He listens to a message from his son asking when he will come home and we see imagery that indicates his family are dead (or, at the very least, he is dead to them). He hangs himself. As his body struggles against the noose a dust sheet rises in a human shape. Blood seeps through it and then the spirit that animates it transfers into Chin.

the mirror reveals the possession
Possessed, he struggles supernaturally against the noose. Yau breaks into his home, cuts him loose and then battles against him until he can cast the spirit out of Chin. By the time the fight is over (and the phone Chin had is broken in the fight) a crowd has gathered outside the door. Aunty Mui comes in but Yau holds her back until Chin spews black gunk. In the crowd, watching all this, is a man named Gau who – we discover later – is a black magician.

Anthony Chan as Yau
Later Chin goes to the small kitchen in the building where Yau prepares free meals for the residents (who are few in number). Yau makes him some gluttonous rice and Mui offers to fix his costumes (she sews for many of the residents). She goes back to her husband, Tung (Richard Ng, Mr Vampire 3), whilst Yau speaks to Chin. Yau is descended from a line of vampire hunters but cooks gluttonous rice as all the vampires have disappeared. Chin does not believe in the supernatural (presumably he has no memory of the possession part of his suicide attempt).

Tung's death
Tung goes to take trash out and, distracted by a child – which we can see is unnatural – falls, smashing himself up as he does. Later he returns to Mui and she washes his feet – he tells her he will return in a few days and she awakens. He is dead and she goes to Gau to help prepare his body for his spirit’s return. The film then follows the mystical preparation of his corpse and its change into the vampire of the film – which Yau and Chin have to battle.

the twins
Like many Chinese Vampire films this features ghosts and, in this case, Chin’s apartment is haunted by twin girls who were subject to rape, the murder of one and the suicide of the other. The killer was Pak’s father, who was killed by one of the Twins. Pak's mother, Feng (Kara Hui, A Chinese Ghost Story (2011)), and he both live, homeless, within the building living off food left out by residents who worship ancestors. Feng is drawn to the apartment but can see the Twins and they terrify her. These ghosts are much more serious and vengeful than in a standard Chinese vampire movie and owe a lot to Japanese stylisation.

Tung hops
As for Tung, when he activates – as it were – he does hop but he also glides on his toes and the vampire has a heavy physical presence that offers a darkness that belies any derision. At a point when he is possessed by the twins, he crawls across the ceiling and walls. We see the holding of breath to avoid him. We also get, within the lore, lung cancer being held off by smoking the ashes of unborn children. There is a satisfying turn around at the end that I won’t spoil.

Mui with Tung
The actual making of the vampire involves burying him in soil, in a dark place where he used to live (the bathtub) and then transferring him into a coffin that is kept off the ground. He has to wear a coin mask always (the removal of this allows the transformation to fully occur), crows blood is administered, his hair and nails continue to grow and for an hour each night – before fully becoming kyonsi – his one eye (Mui sewed one shut due to damage) opens. Corpse oil can attract an activated vampire.

ghost procession
The acting is superb throughout and the visual style is simply stunning. The colour scheme is mostly muted, and that adds to the atmosphere, with moments of vivid colour (mainly red) but the actual photography is wonderful and, as a directorial début, you couldn’t really wish for better. The use of soundtrack is striking and uses pieces from Mr Vampire. There are moments that are simply not explained, such as a ghost procession that Chin looks away from and, despite his claim to not believe, is never subsequently discussed. Moments like this add to the atmosphere. One thing that is stripped from this, which is apparent in most of the kyonsi films including Mr Vampire, is the humour. The film doesn’t miss it however.

Tung activated
Mr Vampire is a classic, it is true. It is outstanding that a tribute to it could be even better. I’m putting this down to the visual feast that it is and the pacing that clicks along like a metronome, never once faltering. 9 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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