Rigor Mortis (HK 2013)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 2/23/14
Director: Juno Mak
Cast: Chin Siu Ho, Anthony Chan, Wei Ying Hung (Kara Hui), Nina Paw, Richard Ng, Billy Lau

Chin Siu Ho plays a once famous actor who is frustrated, depressed, and past his prime. Flat broke and down on his luck, he moves into a haunted apartment building and his presence awakens the restless spirits within. Luckily for him, one of his new neighbors (Anthony Chan) is a Taoist priest, and he manages to save Siu Ho from being possessed. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of his nightmare, as there happens to be another Taoist priest in the building who is up to no good. He wants to bind the apartment's spirits to a recently deceased tenant and turn him into an undead servant. Things naturally get out of hand, forcing Chan and Siu Ho to put their lives on the line in a desperate battle against the undead.

Inspired by 1985's "Mr. Vampire" (which also starred Chin Sui Ho), first-time director Juno Mak's attempt to revive the hopping vampire genre comes off as a little flat. It's a dark and brooding picture, and while the humor that was so prevalent in the genre is gratefully absent, so is all of the action. The visual effects are competent, but marred by invasive wire work and an overabundance of distracting CG animation. While it's a Chinese film, the supernatural elements have a decidedly Japanese feel to them, with naked children squatting in corners and long-haired twins in blood spattered gowns. It's a shockingly violent and bloody film, which adds an additional layer of dread and despair to the formula.

The pacing is deliberately slow, utilizing long pans and slow sweeps to build tension. The background music is appropriately haunting, but used very sparingly. Most of the film plays out in complete silence, which creates a heightened sense of dread and isolation. The acting is quite good, and one has to wonder how much of Chin Siu Ho's pained performance is a reflection of himself. Is this art imitating life? Anthony Chan is delightful as a bitter and grumpy vampire hunter, doing what he can to get by in a world without vampires. Veteran actors Billy Lau, Richard Ng, and Wei Ying Hung add a touch of nostalgia and remind us of the film's roots. However, the most impressive performance comes from Nina Paw, who goes from being a sweet old lady to a merciless killer. The atrocities she commits in her emotionally shattered state are equal only to the fear and terror of her self awareness. She is just as frightening as the bloodthirsty spirits that haunt the halls.

Unfortunately, I found "Rigor Mortis" to be a disappointing exercise in style over substance, and would have preferred a much more straight forward approach with more action and mysticism. I was originally going to give it two stars, but the last two minutes of the film changed my mind and forced me to re-evaluate it from a different perspective. The impressively downbeat ending gives you a lot to think about and forces your brain to rearrange all of the pieces.