I know, I know…. I’ve let things slip away from me again, and I’m sorry my ambitious plans for improving my posting here have fallen short… again. So… how about this wee Catgirl making up for it by taking time for another “shared review” with our Blogging friend and fellow Asian cinema fan Stephen here at the Litterbox and over at his new Blog “Gweilo Ramblings”? Our last couple of efforts have tended to focus on Korean film, but this time out, we thought we might just shake things up a bit with a look at director Juno Mak’s new Chinese Horror effort “Rigor Mortis”, just out on English subtitled Region 3 DVD. So… if you are up for it Gentle Visitors, let’s see if the venerable “Hopping Vampire” film still has a bit of life… or should that be “unlife?… left in it.
You’ve slipped, I’ve slipped. Maybe us Asian film fans are just utterly unreliable? Anyway, glad to be here Miyu! Thank you for welcoming me in as always. Now how about you give us one of your lil’ synopsis things?
😉 Our lil’ “synopsis thing” goes as follows: “Rising to fame with his role as a vampire hunter in the movie Mr. Vampire in the 80s, action star Siu Ho (Chin Siu Ho playing a fantasized version of himself) is now a down-and-out middle-aged man who lives alone in the haunted unit numbered 2442 in a dreary public housing estate. With a broken family and a career that has gone downhill, Siu Ho tries to end his life in his own apartment but ends up having his body possessed by a pair of twin ghosts. Saved by exorcist Ah Yau (Anthony Chan), Siu Ho decides to help his ex-tenant Yeung Fung (Kara Hui) and her son after finding out about their family tragedy. Unknown to them all, Aunt Mui (Paw Hee Ching), a kindhearted old lady in the neighborhood, has a secret coffin hidden in her flat which foreshadows the beginning of a horrific encounter with an old familiar… and apparently very real… Evil.”
Oooohhh!! This lady’s been aching for this one since seeing the Trailer, crazy horror film junkie that I am… Will it score big with both Stephen and I or land badly with an audible “plop”? Only one way to know… and that’s to give it a look see. You of course, can benefit from our fanatic desires for Asian horror thrills by simply kicking back and giving both our reviews a read (take a peek over HERE for Stephen’s version… 😉 ) as we trade opinions. (Pssst!! That’s your cue to “Read On”!!… poke, poke!! 😉 )
Ahhhh… the glory days of Hong Kong cinema… and with that exuberant explosion of film, the first chance for a Western audience… and a certain wee Catgirl… to experience the creepy Horror/ Comedy mash-ups that were the “Hopping Vampire” genre. At one point it seemed as if was nearly impossible to have a HK horror film without including the “Jiang Shi” in much the same way that the Indonesians cant seem to make one nowadays without our friend the “ghost-in-a-sack”, the Pocong. Silly… oh yes, especially to most Western audience sensibilities… but also so darn unique and entertaining as well. I first encountered them in the classic “Mr. Vampire” on a suspiciously bootleg-looking VHS tape picked up at an Asian market during a trip to the city with friends waaaay back in my freshman year of college. Crazy… goofy…. and hardly the least bit scary… it was still the neatest thing since “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” that I’d ever seen… and with Kung-Fu!! One viewing later… and I was hooked.
I have to be totally honest here. My experiences with the genre are a little complex. On the one hand, “Mr Vampire” was one of the very first Hong Kong films I ever saw (late night crazy movie night on one of our terrestrial channels), but on the other hand little Stephen wanted his horror to be a little more hardcore back then. And also, Hong Kong humour can be bloody near impenetrable sometimes. Except when it is being all “Three Stooges” or as you say “Abbott and Costello”.
Well… I’m a few years…. **ahem**… “more seasoned”… than I was back in those days, but I’m still a big fan of that genre. Hong Kong somehow stopped really making them for a few years… most of their subsequent “vampire” movies looking a lot more like the monsters in our Western films than the traditional ones in the old stories. But luckily… singer, record producer, actor, and now freshman director, Juno Mak at least, thinks there’s some legitimate scares and thrills left in those quaint Jiang Shi legends and decided to see what he might do with the genre.
“Rigor Mortis” is his first attempt in the directors chair, and having watched it I can say he certainly strikes this lady as as big a fan of the genre as I am. It’s a good attempt to meld the best of that old Chinese movie folklore with the edgier, bloodier, more vicious approach to horror film-making you see in Japan, Korea, and Thailand. Much of that is due, no doubt, to his co-producer on this film, Takashi Shimizu, who was behind the “Ju-on” series in Japan.
Juno Mak certainly is an interesting character. Fairly derided as a pop star, he has slowly worked his way down the film ladder, starting with a bit of Producing and Script Writing (along with some acting) before sitting down behind the lens proper. What his previous work suggests is very much a love of genre films, and a desire to reinvent. So I was excited to see what he could do. Despite the involvement of Takashi Shimizu, whose “Ju-on” films I detest!
Well Shimizu’s influence is definitely felt in the two ghostly twins subplot, but this is primarily a Chinese film…. despite many elements that would be comfortable in any “Long Haired Ghost” film out of Japan… and wisely director Mak makes a conscious effort to include as many veteran film stars from the heyday of the HK Hopping Vampire craze to balance things out, including our story’s main protagonist Siu-hou Chin (one of the stars of the classic films “Mr Vampire”, “Vampire Vs Vampire”, “Chinese Vampire Story”, “The Seventh Curse” & “Vampire Warriors”), who pretty much plays a fictionalized version of himself throughout our story.
And this is something I thought was very clever, I do like a bit of meta-textual narrative myself, although it did take a little bit of google and wikipedia for me to actually understand.
Our story starts as the final apocalyptic battle of the film ends… with Uncle Yau (played by Anthony Chan, fellow veteran of “Mr. Vampire” as well as “Mr Vampire 4”) slumped against a wall, one arm missing and smoking a last cigarette while Chin lies in a heap nearby, both of them looking battered, muddy, torn to bits and most certainly near death. Chin rolls over to face the dawning sky…. and begins our tale with a brief monologue: “I left this village when I was 13, and became a leading man when I was 16 – I never thought it would be when I hit 50 that I finally become human. They say film stories are absurd – but I think real life is more so….”
I am a bit torn over this… not a big fan of showing us how things end up BEFORE we have met everyone, kind of takes away a good deal of suspense in my opinion.
Truthfully I wasn’t terribly fond of that framing device either… too much information delivered far too early… But it leads to the bulk of our tale, told in flashback and beginning as has-been movie idol Chin moves into the dreary and rundown public apartment tower that becomes the backdrop for all the horror to come. He used to be somebody… but that was years ago… and the residents barely seem to notice the celebrity as he makes his way to apartment 2442 with the help of security guard Uncle Yin (played by Hoi-Pang Lo). Chin could care less about being unnoticed… as he doesn’t really intend to stay long in their midst. Nope… Chin’s life has hit rock bottom and with the final loss of a wife that finds him a useless and embarrassing nobody and the little son he loves and will never be allowed to see again, he’s decided that his pitiful Life is nothing he wants to endure any longer. He intends Apartment 2442 to be merely the last stop in his fall, and the place he’s chosen to die. Too bad somebody else already beat him to it there…
I actually found the backstory of Chin’s family a little underdeveloped. I couldn’t work out if his family had died, or simply disowned him. The voice-mail from his son and the drawn on wristwatch were great bits of character, but I am an inquisitive sort, and I wanted to know more.
Things get weird even before that when Uncle Yin makes a big deal out of carrying out the ordinarily traditional blessing done to welcome a new resident to their apartment…. and it’s pretty darn easy to see that the place freaks him out, but Chin ignores those creepy red flags and after Yin departs, carries on with his plan to hang himself from the ceiling light. Then shit gets freaky….
Two female ghosts appear…. crawling out of the floor beneath a dust sheet as Chin strangles and then try to possess his body. Luckily for him they are thwarted at the last minute by the unexpectedly timely intervention of resident noodle shop owner… and former vampire hunter… Yau, who saves Chin, beats the ghosts out of him and then deals with the panicked neighbors.
From that point forward, wearing the marks of the noose around his neck, Chin becomes immersed in the odd and unsettling supernatural goings-on at the apartment while he struggles to understand the “second chance” he’s been given and his personal need to somehow repay Yau. The story slows down a bit here… our ghosts keep plaguing Chin, looking for another chance to get him, and he becomes aware of the strained lives of the others in the building. Like nice Aunty Mui (played by Hee Ching Paw) and her husband Tung (played by Richard Ng of “Mr Vampire 3”), bedraggled and possibly crazy homeless mother Feng (played by Kara Hui of “A Chinese Ghost Story (2011)”) and her white haired son Pak, or creepy Gau, Uncle Yau’s rival and nemesis here at the housing estate.
This was the part of the film I actually enjoyed the most. There is a tender relationship between Mui and Tung, a nice switch on expectations with Feng and especially Pak, and Gau I think I am more sympathetic towards than you.
They all have their parts to play in the horror to come, some willingly, some reluctantly. Eventually things come to a head when Gau “aids” grieving Auntie Mui in restoring her husband to “life” through Black Magic and ends up unleashing her resurrected husband on the residents of the apartment building as an unstoppably deadly Jiangshi vampire coupled with the powers of the begrudged spirits of the murdered twins that once lived… and then horribly died… in Chin’s apartment.
Although definitely a bit slow in the beginning, this is where our film picks up. Chin and Yau reluctantly team up to fight the vampire, Yau with his knowledge of all things Taoist sorcery and vampire lore, and Chin with his skills at wushu, learned after years and years of HK action movies. The resulting battle is tense and completely unlike the more comedic ones this Catgirl remembers from those old movies. If nothing else, “Rigor Mortis” definitely manages to make the Jiangshi a terrifying monster rather than a goofy comedic plot element. Nope… this particular critter is badass. Seriously.
Vampire Tung is seriously badass. Although the final battle I found a little confusing to follow, Mak had turned a comedic threat into a serious one. But I so wish it had more time to be shown off.
I just wish there had been more screen time to enjoy that. The real horror elements don’t get into gear until well over 2/3rds of the way into this one. Yes, yes… the ghostly twins have some moments early on, but even they and their tragic back-story are merely teasing side plots to the story of the vampire itself.
Meh. Those ghostly twins. I liked their back story. And I understand how they fed into the main plot. But they really were a cgi-tastic diversion and side-show.
Now mind you… while overall this wee Catgirl found the film to be pretty good, I’m afraid not all is without problems here. There are some minor quibbles that left nagging questions for me. Like our villain Mr. Gau… He’s definitely the bad guy of the story, a rival “sorcerer-for-hire” to the more principled Yau, but exactly what their relationship is is never really explained. They don’t like each other… that much is plain to see, but what’s the basis of that dislike? It’s never mentioned, but could have helped explain the most puzzling idea of the story. That, of course, is why in heck Gau would want to raise up a Jiangshi in the first place. He doesn’t strike one as an idiot… he’s completely aware of the danger such a monster represents.. and yet he not only does it, but leaves the monster in the tender care of an old lady with no idea of the true nature of the monster she’s hiding away and only the most vague instructions on it’s care…. rules that sound as dumb and arbitrary as the ones from “Gremlins”….. no wonder it gets loose and promptly goes on a rampage.
Now this I actually got. I totally agree with you about how come Yau and Gau seem to have an enmity that isn’t given any real explanation. But I think Gau had the bigger picture in mind. He was using Mui here. The idea was that Vampire Tung could have been a strong enough vessel to rid room 2442 of the powerful twins. So his end goal was laudable, his means of doing so far less justified.
Then there’s the “accidental” death of Uncle Tung. He’s killed by a fall down the concrete stairwell in the apartment complex. A fall that seems to be the fault of some ghostly child that tricks him into tripping on the stairs… but what ghost is it? We never learn… it doesn’t get mentioned again and, unless I missed something… seemingly is unrelated to either the ghost twins of 2442, our evil resident sorcerer Gau, or… well… anything else. Grrrr, how I dislike random plot threads….
Nope. I have no idea either. All that talk of children’s voices and so on.. one wonders if there was yet another subplot excised from the final film. Though with what you are about to say, they maybe didn’t excise enough!
Another inexplicable thing…. at one point mid way through our story Chin and crazy Feng’s little boy Pak witness a ghostly procession of 12 foot tall ghosts in traditional traveling clothing from out of a kung-fu movie moving through the hall ways of the building. It’s eerie… it’s creepy… and it apparently has nothing at all to do with anything in the story, nor is it mentioned or explained again. Say what? Random ghostly haunting? Who the heck knows… but boy could Chin and Yau have used these guys help at the conclusion during their final deadly fight with the vampire.
So… that seems to be my overall feeling here. There’s a lot of good stuff on hand. Great classic actors from all the old movies I watched and loved… lots of good atmospheric settings.. a nice melding of Chinese and Japanese flavors in the horrors on display… and a truly gruesome and effectively scary hopping vampire. Put all those together and they make for a basically satisfying if somewhat uneven cinema experience that doesn’t disappoint, but that could have perhaps been a bit tighter and better paced with maybe a little more logic and plot cohesiveness added. Stephen might disagree with lil’ ol’ me, but I lean towards a 3 “Meows” for this one, and I’d be interested in seeing more of Juno Mak’s efforts in future if this one is to be considered his debut in the director’s chair. He’s got a few things to learn, but there’s obvious talent and a real eye for things evident too.
I somewhat liked it. I thought it was smart, good looking, full of love. I liked the stuff where he reinvented and re-purposed ideas. Loved the meta-textual elements. Sadly, it was just too bloody busy. We could have happily dropped whole subplots and given a much tighter and more satisfying movie. But I am given hope that Mak might be a real talent. I’ll actually agree with you on the “Meow” rating. Solid, unspectacular but with much to respect, and to adore.
Yep. Overall a nice night for me and Carolyn to share some quality “movie time” on the couch. It hasn’t made her any more of a fan of the wild films I love, but then this girl is just too darn fond of these sorts of goofy films to live without. Thank goodness she’s a good sport and I’ve oodles of good blogging friends like Stephen to share them with… Can’t wait till next time. 😉
We have a Trailer of course… as if this wee lady would ever make you leave a review without one… 😉