The latest film from Juno Mak (probably best known for his work on 2010's Revenge: A Love Story) and his directorial debut begins when a man named Chin (Chin Siu Ho) moves into a tenement style apartment building. He shuffles into his new apartment with a few relics from his past: costumes, in need of repair, from the days when he was a successful actor. These days, Chin carries with him sad memories of his wife and son and when they overtake him, he tries to hang himself from the ceiling fan. Before he can shuffle off this mortal coil, however, he's saved by his neighbor Yau (Anthony Chan Yau).
This is only the beginning of the strange things that start happening in the complex, however. A kindly old lady named Auntie Mui (Hee Ching Paw) offers to repair his clothes, she does much of the tailoring required by the buildings residents, but when her husband falls to his death on the stairs she turns to black magic in hopes of bringing him back. While she's cavorting with a sorcerer named Gau (Chung Fat), Chin's past collides with the buildings present as the ghosts of his apartment's former residents make their presence known leaving Chin and Yau to try and put these supernatural denizens to rest.
Produced by Takashi Shimizu (he of The Grudge/Ju-On fame) and beautifully shot by Ng Kai Ming, Rigor Mortis takes the ideas behind the popular Mr. Vampire series of films made in the eighties heyday of Hong Kong horror movies and updates them in fascinating ways. Not only do we get a hopping vampire here, and a remarkably eerie one at that, but we get Chin Siu Ho (the star of the original Mr. Vampire movie) basically playing himself in the film (note the ragged costumes he shows in an early scene). There are other references to these movies scattered throughout the movie in both presentation and casting choices (Anthony Chan, Billy Lau and Richard Ng also appeared in the original series), but this is more than just an homage to Jiangshi films and fiction, it's a movie that stands out in its own right and in some pretty big ways at that.
The performances here are quite strong and not just from the principal players. Yes, Chin Siu Ho and Anthony Chan Yau are very good as the two male leads and as their relationship builds and we get to know them better their performances anchor the picture but supporting players stand out here as well. Hee Ching Paw is excellent as the grieving older woman, recently widowed unbeknownst to her neighbors. We like her enough that when she resorts to the forbidden dark arts to escape her loneliness, we almost can't blame her even if it's obvious she should not be doing what she's doing. Chung Fat is also quite good as the black magician, a man who is essentially the reverse of Yau's noble Taoist ritualistic defender of what we could say is traditional ‘good.' Kara Hui, also in a supporting role as a mother unusually obsessed with Chin's apartment, is also very good here as is the child actor who plays her albino son.
The visuals really sell this one, however. Mak and company turn a rundown apartment project into a fascinating house of horrors as the different layers of the script pile up. There are definitely some spots where the story loses sight of itself and the ending is going to leave more than a few viewers scratching their heads, but even with these flaws the film never looks less than fantastic despite some scenes showing some very heavy and obvious CGI work. This won't be the most accessible horror film western audiences have ever seen but it is a damn good one, a movie ripe with symbolism and metaphor, a story that pulls you in and performances and effects work that definitely deliver. It's a fast paced picture that offers some good scares and some genuine pathos and it is ultimately a very unique viewing experience.
Rigor Mortis debuts on Blu-ray framed at 2.39.1 widescreen in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. Shot digitally the image is completely free of dirt or debris but there is some obvious banding evident in a few scenes. Black levels are rock solid and very deep but thankfully avoid any major crush or compression artifact problems while color reproduction looks about as good as Mak probably wanted it to, meaning that this is a grim film heavy on greys and blacks but those splashes of red used for contrast really pop nicely. Detail is strong throughout the picture and there's good texture and depth in pretty much every frame of the image.
Audio options are offered in Cantonese and English in DTS-HD 5.1 and DTS-HD 2.0 flavors with optional subtitles provided in English only. The 5.1 Cantonese mix is the way to go as obviously the actors are dubbed on the English track, but both options provide a lot of great surround usage and a pretty enveloping listening experience. Rear channel activity isn't quite constant but it's certainly plentiful and the movie's excellent use of ambient background sounds and boisterous sound effects in the movie active scenes really comes through nicely and adds a lot to the experience. As you'd expect, there are no issues with any hiss or distortion and the levels are nicely balanced, providing crisp dialogue and strong bass response.
Extras? We get a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other Well Go USA properties, animated menus and chapter selection. It would have been great to get a director's commentary on this one, but that didn't happen.
Rigor Mortis is deeply entrenched in Chinese folk lore and as such, western viewers might stumble here and there while trying to sort out some of the movie's plot devices but none of that changes the fact that this is a really well made and remarkably atmospheric picture. Some of the CGI is a bit over the top but Juno Mak creates some amazing imagery here and tells a really interesting, and sometimes genuinely eerie, story at the same time. The Blu-ray release from Well Go USA is very light on extras but it looks good and it sounds good and as such, it comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.