Sunday, August 24, 2014

Fangs for Nothing: RIGOR MORTIS (2013)

After the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in 1997, the world expected rioting in the streets, martial law and red tanks rolling over every civil liberty in sight. Actors and artists fled to the US as fast as their visas would carry them. People who were celebrated filmmakers in Hong Kong like Ronny Yu and John Woo brought their illustrious careers to the US and promptly were absorbed by the Hollywood Collective, draining their talent away like a bad night in Transylvania. The forecast was bleak.

As it turned out China’s love of the yuan superseded their love of oppression and not much changed in Hong Kong. Maybe a few more palms had to be greased, but it was pretty much business as usual. The only thing is that in spite of the movie industry staying “free” (ie still run by the triad), for some reason the movies no longer had the spark of life that had made them so appealing in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Because of this mundane slew of generic product, several fair-weather film fans (such as myself) abandoned the Hong Kong film in search of greener pastures. I think the final nail in the coffin for me was Tsui Hark’s soulless, sappy remake of his own classic ZU WARRIORS (1983/2001). The removal of action and crazy practical make up effects was substituted with a saccharine love story that never got any deeper than Ekin Chang striking poses and flying around some primitive CG sky-scapes. This painful experience led me to swear off HK movies, in particular those of Tsui Hark. Yet somehow, 13 years later, I’ve been drawn back in. Not exactly jumping in with both feet, but definitely jumping in.

After seeing  no less than three recent Tsui Hark movies that I actually enjoyed, in addition to the excellent grumpy old martial arts men pic GALLANTS (2010), I felt confident enough to move on to the big buzz horror film RIGOR MORTIS (2013) from neophyte producer-director Juno Mak.

A has-been actor (Chin Siu-ho playing Chin Siu-ho) who has lost his family and whose career has taken a nose-dive from the glory days of HK cinema, finds himself destitute and alone. Forced by necessity to take up residence in a public housing apartment complex, Chin decides that the only thing to do is to take his own life. Before succeeding in hanging himself, his neighbor and cook at the building’s dilapidated dining center, Yao (Anthony Chan, permanently dressed in bathrobe, boxers and wifebeater) comes to the rescue. His rescue comes exactly as the evil ghosts of a pair of twin sisters enter his body. Fortunately the local priest of black magic, Gao (Fat Chung), also steps in to remove the evil spirits and lock them up in an armoire. Of course this isn't going to hold them long.

According to the aging residents, a man was tutoring a pair of twins in that very apartment when he brutally rapes one, causing the other to stab him to death with a pair of scissors. Both sisters commit suicide, and naturally they still haunt the building. Most modern horror films would be content to stop there, but this is just the beginning. The ghostly horrors lead to the death of old man Tung (Richard Ng). Distraught by his death and having nightmares that Tung will return, Auntie Mui (Nina Paw) stitches him up and entrusts Gao to enact the rituals that will prevent this. Of course, things quickly get ugly with some character twists that are unexpected to say the least.

Giving  a great cast of veteran actors eccentric roles to sink their teeth in to, Juno Mak creates a dead-serious homage to MR. VAMPIRE (1983), ditching the slapstick comedy in favor of heavy gothic atmosphere. The apartment building is as grey and bleak as the sky with sets that look like they have genuinely been lived in for decades. Walls are smudged and dirty and clutter is everywhere. The residents have accepted their lot, eating glutinous rice every day in order to stave off the spirits, evil and otherwise. In a great moment in the beginning of the film Yao insists on taking a bowl of rice to a neighbor. When he is informed that she has been dead for years, he exclaims “she still has to eat!” After setting down the rice bowl in front of her door, he exhales smoke from his cigarette and you can see the faint shape of a woman. It’s a very effective scene and makes it clear that the superstitions of undeath, that the aging community accepts as a way of life, are real. In another scene Yau waxes philosophical about the ghosts in his apartment: “I have stayed here for decades, but they have been here for more than a century. I’ll probably be staying here when I die too. It makes sense to develop a good relationship beforehand.” Hard to argue that point.

Brother Yao, as it turns out, hails from a long line of vampire hunters. For centuries his family has fought the undead, but these days there isn’t much call for that sort of thing, as he says “What do vampire hunters do when there are no more vampires? They cook.” This is the closest that this film comes to comedy, a little dry humor in an otherwise utterly serious film with pitch-perfect performances. Much like 2010s GALLANTS took great pride in bringing aging stars back to life, so here does Mak. Yet instead of having them play comedy, he gives them meaty roles to sink their teeth into (sorry, had to go there). The scene where Auntie Mui is carrying on a conversation with the deceased Uncle Tung before breaking down into tears is surprisingly moving in this day and age of incredibly superficial melodrama.

In addition to the positive buzz, this film has also gotten a lot of flak from the message board types who claim that the film is “slow and boring”. I guess you could say that. The film is not about speed. It deliberately builds up characters and allows the atmosphere to ooze so thick it makes pea soup green with envy. Another criticism was “not scary”. This true too, but then again, I’m not 12. The big, in-your-face horror moments are mostly saved for the last act, but that’s not what this film is about. It’s not about having things jump up in your face and roar every 10 minutes. If you are looking for a movie in which a bunch of youngsters have a car break down and decide to throw a party in a haunted apartment complex where they will tediously scream, run, make pop-culture references and get picked off one by one, this will definitely not be your cup of verbena.

The film boasts an incredible attention to detail, stylish cinematography, and it is unusual for a horror film these days to approach its subject matter without condescension or pretentiousness. Though all is not grimly perfect however. Screenwriters Philip Yung and Leung Lai-yin work some fairly well-worn themes that are saved by superb visuals and great performances, but worse than that, they opt for an ending that will probably frustrate most viewers. That said, this is a film that really caught me off guard with its old fashioned approach to horror and is definitely one of the best things I’ve seen out of Hong Kong in a long time.

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