Friday, March 31, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Rigor Mortis (2013)

Original title: 殭屍

A depressed, aging actor (Chin Siu-Ho) grieving for his lost family moves into a run-down apartment house somewhere in Hong Kong to hang himself in peace, but is first disturbed by a female ghost, then saved by Yau (Anthony Chan Yau), last in a long line of Taoist exorcists now working as a cook and secret soul of the building’s community.

It is a strange community indeed, for not only seems the world of spirits and ghosts particularly close here, all of the living seem to be lost souls too: there’s Yau and his lost calling, a mentally ill woman named Yeung Feng (Kara Hui) and her white-haired child protected by the building’s lone security guard Yin (Lo Hoi-Pang), an old, dying black magician (Chung Faat, I think), and the elderly couple of Mui (Pau Hei-Ching in a particularly impressive performance) and Tung (Richard Ng Yiu-Hon). All of the living are lost in one way or the other, cast aside by life or having cast their lives aside themselves, living in a sort of companionable stasis.

Things change at the time of the actor’s attempted suicide, though, when Tung dies in a ghost related accident. Mui realizes she can’t live without her husband and makes a gruesome pact with the magician that will bring her husband back to her, at least sort of, in form of a hopping vampire. From here on, the static but peaceful life in the building quickly deteriorates until Yau and the actor take it on themselves to stop what’s going on.

The only thing I had read about Juno Mak’s Takashi Shimizu-produced Rigor Mortis before going in was that it was supposed to be an homage to the classic joys of the Mr Vampire movies. This turns out to be about half true, depending on your definition of what an homage is supposed to be and do. While the film is dominated by actors who had their biggest time in Hong Kong cinemas of the 80s, and particularly in the Mr Vampire films, and Mak clearly loves these movies dearly (as he well should), this is not an exercise in nostalgia or imitation. Instead, the film takes a look at the older films it is inspired by, and proceeds to decide what it can do with some of their elements as well as with the in the last decade or so desperately underused talents of their actors thirty years later; respecting the past but also building its own thing on it. For my tastes, this is a much more productive and dignified approach to bygone eras of filmmaking than mere imitation, and certainly the one that should result in the more individual movies.

In Rigor Mortis’s case this means that this film paying homage to a series of comedy kung fu horror films isn’t a comedy at all, but rather aims for an arthouse approach to horror with a bit of CGI enhanced fighting thrown in at the end; fortunately, this doesn’t come over as an attempt of Mak to grim-and-grittify the hopping vampire movie but feels organic, like the logical place to take the characters the film spends a loving – and not humourless – half hour or so building before things begin to get truly threatening.

Despite some moments of ruthless and even to my jaded eyes rather shocking violence, Rigor Mortis’s horror is character based. The bad things happening here are the painfully logical results of the lives these people have led and of the wounds they took in the process. Even the black magician is a figure of pity or at least compassion to a degree. Evil – such as it is – in this film is the result of good intentions, bad decisions, loneliness and plain bad luck rather than of anyone twirling his or her moustache; consequently, the film’s good guys and the film’s bad guys (if you even want to use these terms) are equally flawed and human, and the film isn’t one to point any fingers of judgment at anyone involved. The true horror of the supernatural escalation is how much it is based on simple human sadness, makes it that much more disturbing than any kind of absolute or externalized evil ever could be.

As if this humanist approach to horror weren’t already enough to praise Mak’s film, there is also the brilliance of the performances. Particularly Pau Hei-Ching (there’s one scene between her and her dead, half-undead husband that’s just heart-breaking), Anthony Chan and Chin Siu-Ho are absolutely fantastic, and also demonstrate the impressive things middle-aged and elderly actresses and actors can do if a film just lets them. The way Mak integrates former roles the actors played into the characters without coasting on their reputations is also quite wonderful.

Mak’s visual approach to the film is atmospheric, moody, and claustrophobic, with many a gliding camera movement through the labyrinthine seeming building all of the film takes place in that provide the proceedings with the feeling of the not quite real, or the not quite unreal, turning the building into a locale on the border between the land of the living and that of the dead, as well as between the realm of logic and ill-logic. It’s the kind of place where the weird and the numinous is part of day to day life in more than one way. Even the film’s monochromatic, colour-drained look makes an aesthetic sense in this context: this building with its occupants whom time has left behind is not a place for colours.

Rigor Mortis also manages the impressive feat of making its hopping vampire (who really is more a unnaturally gliding one) seem horrific and threatening. The monster design very effectively puts emphasis on this creature being the most horrible of things – the corpse of an actual human being that has come to life. It’s particularly effective because the film’s script has shown us everything there is to know about the price that was paid for this thing’s creation, and makes clear what an abomination of the man it was in life it truly is. This is not something most vampire films, hopping or not, are any good at showing at all.

The only minor quibble I have with the film is with the at best mediocre quality of its CGI (the black ghost smoke being a particularly ineffective example), but then it never is so bad it gets in the way of the incredible number of things Rigor Mortis does well, so I’m not all that annoyed by it.

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