RIGOR MORTIS (M18)
106 minutes/Opens tomorrow/ ****
The story: A former actor in vampire movies, Chin (Chin Siu Ho) moves into a derelict public housing block. Washed-up and alienated from his wife and son, he plans to kill himself in apartment 2442. His attempt is interrupted by the other denizens of the block, from cook/exorcist Yau (Anthony Chan) to kindly old Auntie Mui (Nina Paw) who lives with her husband Uncle Tung (Richard Ng). Chin later meets the distraught Feng (Kara Hui), who keeps hanging around 2442. When evil is awakened, Chin finds himself battling vicious ghosts and a powerful zombie.
The Hong Kong vampire movies of the 1980s such as Mr. Vampire (1985) were often a campy mix of comedy and horror.
Singer-turned-director Juno Mak might have been inspired by them, but Rigor Mortis is a different creature altogether.
His directorial debut not only revives a moribund genre, but it also does so in a way that is unexpected.
For starters, there is an atmosphere of chill and dread that pervades the movie.
From the dreary palette of greys to the oppressive setting in a crumbling building, Mak, who also wrote the script, builds the suspense gradually.
And thanks to great make-up, costumes and some nifty special effects, he manages to pull off some creepy moments - no mean achievement in an age where genuine scares are few and far in between.
Mak's affection for the genre also comes through in the way the movie is steeped in vampire movie lore and in the gripping action sequences, particularly in the epic showdown between Chin and gang and a powerful zombie.
While movies about ghosts and the undead tend to fall short when it comes to characterisation, Rigor Mortis deftly balances a large ensemble cast and actually makes the various stories mean something.
Auntie Mui (an excellent Nina Paw) and Uncle Tung (Richard Ng) are a couple relying on each other in their old age. They bicker sweetly and she is forever helping out the other residents with little favours.
It makes the horror of what subsequently unfolds more powerful because you come to care for Mui in particular.
Feng, meanwhile, is trapped in her own private nightmare and only her son, Xiaobai, keeps her tethered to this world.
And then there is Chin playing Chin, a washed-up actor facing all manner of evil even as he battles with demons of his own.
The world of Rigor Mortis is a dark one, but Mak finds moments of kindness and tenderness in it, and handles them with an effectively light touch.
And then right at the end, he delivers an enigmatic ending that will keep you guessing.
Is Rigor Mortis a meta movie about the hopping vampire genre? Or did you just witness a distinctly Hong Kong version of hell?
What it is, without a doubt, is a gonzo piece of film-making that is Hong Kong cinema at its best.
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