Last year debut director Juno Mak gave us Rigor Mortis, an homage to Chinese vampire movies from the 80’s, particularly horror comedy Mr. Vampire (1985). Unfortunately, I am not familiar with the film or any other Chinese vampire movies, although seeing Rigor Mortis has peaked my interest in seeking some out.
We are introduced to our setting through Yau (Anthony Chan), a high-profile actor fleeing tragedy. In hopes to lay low and take on a simple life he moves into an enormous public housing tower. The building is gray, dismal, and labyrinthine. The residents have formed their own community, relying on each other to try and maintain a peaceful existence. Such a place, of course, is not without its share of secrets. Yau’s new neighbors welcome him at once by instructing him on how to keep the ghosts that live in his flat happy. Yau may be skeptical at first, but he is soon to learn that there is more than just spirits lurking about the building, and that evil comes in many forms.
Rigor Mortis has ghosts, black magic, vampirism and folklore galore. While it certainly has the elements for a rich storyline, the film moves along a little too slowly and the plot is busy and often seems distracted. The film’s strongest aspect is, undoubtedly, visual effects; it is one of those movies where frame after frame is bursting with visual splendor. It certainly helps to make the movie watchable, but it is not enough to carry it to greatness.
If you are a fan of folklore, like myself, then you will at least find Rigor Mortis interesting. For example, the title is a reference to the jiangshi—which is the Chinese version of a vampire. Like western vampires, the jiangshi only comes out at night and sleeps in a coffin during the day. Instead of actually drinking blood, they act as psychic vampires, meaning they feed on a person’s energy or life-force (this is called Qi in Chinese culture). Since jianghsi are reanimated corpses, they behave and appear as such—they have rotting, decayed flesh, and are very stiff, due to the effects of rigor mortis. Because of their immobility they are told to hop around with their arms outstretched; in this sense they bear more similarity to the western concept of a zombie.
Although it may prove interesting to those fascinated by folklore, Taoist magical practices, and 80’s vampire movies from China, Rigor Mortis doesn’t go over so well as a casual watch. With the addition of being subtitled, it is a film you have to commit to, and at the end of 105 minutes I fear you might not have found it worth the time.