Washed up Hong Kong horror film star Chin Siu Ho (portraying himself) moves into a desolate, decaying housing estate where he tries to hang himself. In the midst of dying, Siu Ho's body is unexpectedly invaded by two malevolent ghost girls haunting the room. The spirits are exorcised by Ah Yau (Anthony Chan), a real life Taoist vampire slayer now fallen on hard times. Shaken by the incident, Siu Ho befriends Ah Yau who introduces him to the other troubled tenants including Yeung Fung (Kara Hui Ying-Hung), a psychologically scarred single mother who roams the halls at night with her little albino boy Pak, and Auntie Mui (Bau Hei-Jing), a kindly old seamstress with a dark secret. Eventually a personal tragedy drives Mui to seek help from a black magic practitioner named Gau (Chung Fat). Together they enact a series of grisly supernatural events that unleash a menace Siu Ho battled many times on screen but must now face for real: a hopping vampire.
Cantopop singer-songwriter, producer and actor Juno Mak was something of a hate figure among English-speaking fans of Hong Kong films, who tend to be too quick to judge. Just like previous teen idols despised by the fan boys Mak eventually earned some respect with a solid movie. In this case his directorial debut: a postmodern reboot of the once-beloved Mr. Vampire franchise. Long-time fans of hopping vampire horror comedies, indeed Hong Kong fantasy cinema in general, may find Rigor Mortis somewhat of a jarring viewing experience. Gone is the trademark knockabout humour and frantic kung fu set-pieces. In their place Mak weaves an atmosphere of unrelenting dread and despair, pairing powerful performances with gloomy grey-hued gothic imagery more reflective of the J-horror style practiced by co-producer Takeshi Shimizu, creator of The Grudge films.
On the one hand Rigor Mortis reflects a dispiriting trend towards purging humour, energy and that unique genre-mashing spirit inherent in Cantonese cinema for the sake of acceptance, not only by the international mainstream but a young mainland Chinese audience for whom the old style is equally alien. Yet there remains an undeniable frisson in seeing Mr. Vampire done deadly bloody serious. Juno Mak successfully redefines the Hong Kong hopping vampire from a figure of fun into something at once both genuinely terrifying and surprisingly affecting. By comparison with the original movies, the new film is deliberately slower paced, driven by anguished performances and dramatic tension rather than action. As well as paying fleeting tribute to deceased stars Lam Ching-Ying and Ricky Hui, Mak reunites original cast members Chin Siu-Ho and Anthony Chan both of whom prove more than capable of handling weightier drama. Even Billy Lau shows up in a small role.
The postmodern conceit of Siu Ho playing a more downtrodden version of himself is slightly cruel and, in retrospect, pointless given how little impact it has on the plot. Still his presence adds a unique undertone, akin to revisiting a once-cherished memory with more jaded eyes and uncovering darkness lurking therein. More successfully Anthony Chan, never really given the chance to flex his acting muscles in the old movies, brings disarming new dimensions and pathos to a more human variation on his stock role. In a similar vein former kung fu diva turned multi-award winning actress Kara Hui Ying-Hung gives an amazing, near-feral turn as the distraught Yeung Fung and, without spoiling anything, you will never look at beloved Hong Kong comedian Richard Ng the same way again. Yet the standout is arguably veteran actress Bau Hei-Jing. As the most complex and unnervingly empathetic character in the film she encapsulates the central theme that fear of abandonment and death drives people to desperate, even despicable acts. These include one deeply shocking act, all the more horrific because Mak hides the violence behind a locked door keeping his camera tight on the guilty party's agonized, conflicted face.
Dark and oppressive throughout, the film weaves a slowly coalescing atmosphere of dread, suffused with visceral, supernatural imagery. Mak exhibits real skill as a horror filmmaker, re-staging scenes from Mr. Vampire to more nightmarish effect with modern visual effects even though the tone is less horrific than achingly sad. Which leaves this an acquired taste yet infused with an impressive sense of melancholy both in terms of its visuals and protagonists. All of the characters are haunted in some way. Siu-Ho by his estranged family, Ah Yau by a lack of purpose (no more vampires, no more vampire hunters), Fung by a horrific past and Mui by the fear of dying alone. Given the sheer abundance of familiar HK character actors it is conceivable that the real ghost of this movie is Cantonese cinema. Yet the film movingly has Ah Yau fighting to keep the tenement community together in the face of an uncaring world. Much as Stephen Chow Sing-Chi did with Kung Fu Hustle (2004), Rigor Mortis has an old-style Hong Kong community band together to save the present from ghosts of the past. Inevitably, Siu Ho breaks out his kung fu moves to face his old foe once last time. On a troubling note, while the finale does move it also seems to endorse suicide as the only option for people suffering from depression.