A tribute to classic Hong Kong horror, and the Mr Vampire films (1985 – 1992), Rigor Mortis is the directorial debut of well-known actor, Juno Mak. In a self-reflexive mode, the protagonist in Rigor Mortis is Chin Siu-ho, of the original Mr Vampire films, who is playing himself. Out of work and favour Chin is forced to move to a decrepit and largely derelict apartment building. Once moved in, Chin tries to take his own life (there is a back story about the death of his wife and son which is offered as reason for his suicide attempt), but is rescued in the nick of time by Anthony Chan (who also appeared in the Mr Vampire films), a tenant who runs a food stall in the basement of the apartment building. For some reason, Chin’s attempted suicide and rescue sets of a series of ghostly and ghastly events: an old women tries to bring her dead husband back to life, and the ghosts of twin girls are set free. Will Chin and his sidekick Chan save the day? Will they be able to vanquish the ghosts of the dead?
Although I haven’t yet seen the Mr Vampire films (but will be doing for my book on East Asian Gothic Cinema), and therefore missed some of the more subtle intertextual references to the original series, I found Rigor Mortis a great deal of fun to watch. Not only does Rigor Mortis with its actors and mixture of slapstick comedy and grotesque horror evoke the days of classical Hong Kong horror but the addition of twin ghosts – revenants of the Japanese ghost story – adds a transnational and contemporary motif to the mix. Given that SHIMIZU Takashi, the director of Ju-on series, was the co-producer, it is no surprise that female vengeful ghosts who died as a result of male oppression are inhabiting the same ghostly space as hopping vampires.
While comic relief is provided by the pairing of Chin and Chan Yau (Anthony Chan) who reluctantly are drawn into exorcising the ghosts, the emotional core of the film is provided by the relationship between an elderly women, Auntie Mui (Hee Ching Paw) and her husband Tung (Richard Ng). When Tung falls down the stairs and breaks his neck, Auntie Mui is unable to let her husband go, and instead turns to Chung Fat, a temple priest who has taken up black magic in order to combat the cancer that is gradually killing him, to help her in her quest to return her husband to life. Of course dabbling in black magic is never a good thing in Hong Kong cinema and really the dead should be left well alone in case they return as vampires, ghosts or other permutations of the undead and the demonic. I was reminded of another Hong Kong Horror film, Going Home (Peter Chan: 2002), where Mr Yu (Leon Laid) uses Chinese medicine to bring back his recently deceased wife Hai’er (Eugenia Yuan). The inability to let a loved one go, in Rigor Mortis, as in Going Home, can only lead to tragedy.
The film is beautifully shot, with the cinematography evoking both the cinematic past and the cinematic present. The kung-fu set-pieces are well choreographed, and the vengeful ghosts well realised, offering something for everyone who is interested in East and South East Asian cinema. It made me want to see the original Mr Vampire film series and any film that brings new audiences to old films is a great thing in my book. In these days of remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels, Rigor Mortis manages to do something new by creating something innovative and original from the revenants of the old rather than just blandly recycling the old.