I’ve always admired Asian cinema for its bold enthusiasm. These films always go for it with vigor, never once fearing failure. The visuals are filled with insane originality. Asian productions do a great job of mixing up horror and comedy, milking melodrama to the umpth degree. When it works as a cohesive unit, the results are riveting. This is also the case with their genre work which include greats such as the Ju-On: The Grudge films, The Host, Audition and the criminally underseen horror/comedy Rahtree: Flower of the Night (well, at least in North America. It spawned three sequels). Rigor Mortis is the latest entry. It’s inspired by the Hong Kong vampire horror/comedies of the 80’s, most notably the zany Mr. Vampire and its four sequels. So much so that some of the talent from that cult series can be found here.
An out of work actor, mourning the loss of his wife and child checks in at an old creepy public housing complex which happens to be inhabited by all sorts of unsavory supernatural entities. Rigor Mortis is as much a somber, character-driven tale of redemption as it is a horror film. All of the characters have their demons and hurting internally. Co-Writer/Director Juno Mak is assisted by the moving performances from his ensemble. They successfully ground the picture which could have easily been overwhelmed by its more eccentric qualities. While Rigor Mortis nods to its influences, Mak’s vision is much darker, more menacing than any of those earlier movies.
When it comes to craftsmanship, Rigor Mortis is without fault. The cinematography is consistently ace. Every shot has been beautifully composed. The visual effects are also quite effective. These elements are showcased during Rigor Mortis’ epic third act which is loaded with some slick, imaginative action beats. This is the kind of stuff Hong Kong cinema does particularly well. Their fearless sensibility is without equal. If only more Hollywood genre pictures would display such high levels of creativity. I admire Mak for taking his time developing this unique universe and the characters that inhabit it. They all have rich arcs that pay off by the end. Quirky humor is nicely infused throughout the build-up. This offsets the viewer, making the story’s darker aspects that much more jolting. Ultimately Rigor Mortis’ strengths is undone by its plodding pace. It drains the life out of the picture. The leisure manner in which the film unravels grows increasingly tedious. Things do pick up during the wild finale but by that point the damage has already been done.
It’s amazing how a film can seemingly have all of the ingredients that make up an engaging piece of entertainment yet still manage to falter. Mak spends just too much of Rigor Mortis’ running time meandering that not even a top-notch finish and good performances could reel me back in. I like a lot of what I saw throughout this picture but the atmospheric build-up sucked the energy out of the picture for me. While Rigor Mortis didn’t work enough for me as a whole, there will certainly be admirers especially fans of offbeat Hong Kong genre cinema that these filmmakers were so obviously influenced by.
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