New life in death

With the recognition that vampire flick Rigor Mortis has been getting, first-time director Juno Mak shakes off the image of him as the pop singer with a rich dad.

Impressively, the Hong Kong entertainer has breathed new life into a moribund genre and the film was nominated for Best New Director, Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup & Costume Design at the prestigious Golden Horse Awards last week.

While it did not win in those categories, it received the International Federation of Film Critics Prize.

Apart from critical recognition, the movie has also been performing healthily at the box office. The HK$15-million (S$2.4-million) film was released in Hong Kong on Oct 24 and has remained in the top five for four weeks, grossing more than HK$17 million to date. It has also earned NT$45 million (S$1.9 million) in Taiwan. It opens here tomorrow.

What makes the film's success even more fascinating is that its creation had seemed so improbable.

After all, Mak had started out in 2002 as a Cantopop singer. A year later, he picked up an award for "best interpretation" at the TVB Jade Solid Gold Awards - to boos from the audience.

His prominent businessman father Clement Mak, chairman of CCT Telecom, was subsequently investigated for an alleged music industry bribery case. The charges were eventually withdrawn, but Mak's reputation was tarred.

Then there were the tabloid stories over his rivalry with fellow actor-singer Edison Chen. Not only did they lock horns with competing fashion lines, but Mak's then reported girlfriend, actress Gillian Chung, was also among those whose photographs were leaked in Chen's sex-photo scandal.

Rigor Mortis, then, is the culmination of his rehabilitation as a serious artist.

He has long ago abandoned bubblegum pop for a darker sound and also picked up film festival Best Actor accolades for the gory thriller Revenge: A Love Story (2010), for which he co-wrote the script.

It is a great story, but one that Mak, 29, has no wish to buy into.

Sounding calm and unruffled over the telephone from Hong Kong, he says: "I guess the press have their own angles and I can't relate to what other people think. At the same time, I guess people grow up. Handling yourself is quite a mission already, you don't have the luxury to care too much about what people think.

"I stopped reading magazines and newspapers maybe 12 years ago. I'm past that stage where I have to prove anything to anyone."

And yet, prove himself he has.

Rigor Mortis is a very distinctly Hong Kong movie from its setting to its choice of subject matter to its deft mix of horror and comedy. But one can thank "boring" Vancouver for its genesis.

Speaking in English, Mak recalls: "I grew up in Vancouver and it could be boring for a kid, so I watched a lot of films while growing up there in the 1980s."

His diet included the horror comedy flick Mr. Vampire (1985) along with more hardcore titles such as Wes Craven's The Last House On The Left (1972), Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980). And he watched some of them when he was just eight or nine. There was, apparently, not much adult supervision as he was there with only his elder brother.

Mak adds: "It's kind of traumatic, and a blessing, for a kid to be able to watch these kinds of films. It changed my life."

Because they did not get new titles every week, he ended up rewatching a lot of films. He says: "I started to get into, 'How did they do that? How did they saw the hand off?' It became technical and film-oriented for me."

While Rigor Mortis is clearly well- versed in the universe of the schlocky horror movie, it also manages to feel fresh and even genuinely creepy. It is not merely an homage to the classic vampire flicks of the 1980s. As Mak puts it, they were "revisiting the genre, not remaking it".

He adds: "I always start with a very dark world and the hope, or love, or relationship, is stronger if you start it in this really greyish, dark, cold world."

Mak also assembled a great ensemble cast of actors, including some veterans of the vampire genre such as Chin Siu Ho, 50, Anthony Chan, 61, and Richard Ng, 73. In the film, Chin plays a fictional version of himself, Chan is a retired exorcist, while Ng's wife wants to bring him back from the dead.

Casting was no easy task as "a lot of them had retired" while "Uncle Richard" has a heart problem and could not shoot for long hours. But it was worth the effort. He says: "It's great that the person you think about when you wrote it actually appeared and participated in the film."

Even though he was a first-time director, Mak says he was not intimidated by the prospect of working with the veterans. Instead, the biggest challenge for him was simply the gap between imagining being a director and the reality of it.

"A lot of people think being a director involves strictly creative work, but it's not. You're living on set every day and working with 70 people and we shot the film in 60 days," he says. "It gets psychological. It's how you live with people, how you work with different departments and you get a million questions every day. What this button should be like... is he wearing a t-shirt instead of a shirt."

Mak clearly paid a lot of attention to details and part of what gives the film its strong Hong Kong identity is its setting in a derelict block of tenement flats.

He had a very specific vision: "I wanted this prison-like feeling for the main characters. And a lot of the housing compounds in Hong Kong are built similar to a prison so they have this sort of very tight, tense vibe. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of people jumped off buildings like these in Hong Kong."

It also took hard work to realise his vision. The epic final showdown with a vampire took a gruelling 10 days to shoot.

Chin recalls in a separate e-mail interview: "It was physically tough as I had to be topless for that scene. It was cold and I'm covered with fake blood, water and 'cement' most of the time."

And after delivering a tense and gripping film, Mak turns everything on its head with an enigmatic ending. He has heard 15 interpretations of the ending. While he has his own take, he adds that every explanation is beautiful and valid and "that's the beauty of films".

Next up for him is a crime film and he is working on the script with legendary Japanese director Miike Takashi.

Even though there have been offers to do a Rigor Mortis 2, Mak says: "I don't believe in a sequel. There's a lot of space to explore in the genre, but it probably won't be my next film. I'm burnt out with the whole jumping vampire genre."

What he needs now is a vacation, he declares. "I'm not an outgoing person and I like reading, watching films, staring into space without thinking. You do need time to recover, especially for scripting."

Perhaps he will be spending more time with his reported girlfriend, model Janine Tai. Asked about things on the romance front and he says: "It's happy, but I'm a bit low-profile with that."

With his film career taking off, fans of his music might wonder where that leaves them. For starters, his new album, Paradoxically Yours, is coming out soon.

He intends to continue juggling his various hats of singer-songwriter, producer, actor, scriptwriter and director. "Making and producing a four-minute-long song and making a two-hour-long film are different kinds of ways to express yourself. It's more about balancing time because you get only 24 hours a day.

"Even though what I'm doing sounds like different job positions, it's all about expressing yourself in a creative way."

Background story

"We were revisiting the genre, not remaking it."

Director Juno Mak on his vampire flick Rigor Mortis, which stars veteran actor Chin Siu Ho

Juno Mak at a glance

1984: Born in Hong Kong.

2002: Releases debut EP On The Road and wins several Newcomer Awards.

2003: Wins "best interpretation" award at the TVB Jade Solid Gold Awards - to boos from the audience. His father, CCT Telecom chairman Clement Mak, is later investigated for an alleged music industry bribery case. The corruption charges were later withdrawn.

2004: Joins the music label Silly Thing, which his brother Peter helped set up, and takes a darker approach to his music on the album Proto.

2005: Mak's album Otherside spawns a hit single Hermaphroditism, which also wins Best Alternative Composition Award at the Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong (Cash) Awards.

2007: Starts clothing label Chapel Of Dawn, also the name of a conceptual album on which he collaborated with Japanese artists including Kan Takagi.

2008: Tabloids have a field day on the rivalry between Mak's fashion brand and fellow singer-actor Edison Chen's Clot. To make matters more complicated, Mak is supposedly dating actress Gillian Chung, whose photos are leaked in Chen's sex-photo scandal.

2010: Co-writes and acts in the gory thriller Revenge: A Love Story. His performance wins him best actor awards from the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival and the Moscow International Film Festival.

2013: Rigor Mortis is released to critical buzz and healthy box-office sales. Mak is nominated for Best New Director at the Golden Horse Awards, losing out to Singapore's Anthony Chen.

Rigor Mortis opens in cinemas tomorrow.

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