Saturday, May 24, 2014

尸僵 (Rigor Mortis, SIFF 2014)

Juno Mak is a child of the 80's, that much is clear. His love for the jiangshi films of Hong Kong's hey-day is made unequivocally obvious in Rigor Mortis, his first directorial effort, and hopefully not his last. Best known as the writer and star of Revenge: A Love Story, Juno has put his heart and soul into bringing this most recent feature to morbid life.

On the surface, Rigor Mortis is an homage to the Mr. Vampire series that started its run as a small film produced by Sammo Hung, but which spawned several sequels and a long running series on Hong Kong television. Concerning a man intent to end his life in a squalid tenement that houses a myriad of colorful characters including a brash security guard, an elderly couple, a masterful glutinous rice chef, a disturbed mother and her child, and a practitioner of ancient magic. All characters that bring the surroundings to life, exemplifying its morbid and ghastly heritage.

As the newcomer, the man's failed attempt at suicide sparks gossip and eerie happenings ensue. To go into more, however, would ultimately cross into spoiler territory. Siu Ho-Chin plays a character drawn after himself, an aging actor struggling with identity issues and depression. Actually an alum of Mr Vampire, along with costar Anthony Chan, the rice chef and ex-vampire hunter. Their chemistry here is great, helped immensely I'm sure by their history, and the guiding hand of director Mak. Both inject a sly hint of comedy that winks at the audience underneath the surface melodrama and bloodshed, and fit perfectly into their roles.

The rest of the cast is also uniformly great. Mostly elderly actors, reprising roles that they've played previously, all in the know of the film's take on the genre that died out in the early 90's. They bring a realism to the tenement, a sense of being lived in and a fabricated history that is both tragic and believable. Even more impressive is how they elevate each others' performances, taking cues from adjacent lines in the script and a natural rapport in front of the cameras.

Where Rigor Mortis becomes truly interesting, however, is underneath the surface. A film that works both with and without underlying meaning. Here we have a compelling and moving study of aging. Not just aging, but of facing down an impending end to life late in years, and everything that process brings with it. An overwhelming loneliness and need for companionship, to be able to fit in not just with peers, but your environment, your home. While Hollywood would likely cram in as much nostalgia as possible, Mak makes his picture an observer, avoiding the melodrama that would derail Rigor Mortis into pure camp. He keeps the proceedings cold, clever, intensely creepy and fantastically gory.

The camerawork here is superb. Every shot is framed ingeniously, and the sets are works of art. CGI is used sparingly, never detracting from the film. This wouldn't be a jiangshi film without the requisite hopping vampire, and the effect here is startlingly good, fluid and compellingly serene to watch, even in its grue. The tone, even when there's comedy on screen, is always unsettling, and that's thanks to masterful placement of the cast and cameras, sets and lighting. Really superb.

What Juno Mak has succeeded in doing here is commendable, not just because he is a clear master of paying homage, but because his film never seems derivative. This is a sincere horror picture that deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. The scares are plausibly staged and the imagery will never cease to keep eyes glued to the screen, whether it be the bloodshed (of which there's plenty) or its refusal to become sentimental with its endearing characters. There is something for every trope of horror fan here, be it vampires (though far from traditional), ghosts, slashers, black comedy, or the CAT 3 excesses of Hong Kong's past. It's all here, and all proof of the motion picture as art. This is my current favorite film of 2014, and may stay there, so take my praise as a stern recommendation, and find a way to see this movie.

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