Bringing Back the Living Dead

in 50th Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival

by Paolo Bertolin

Sometimes they come back… And it is good that they do! Ghosts and spirits from the past may arise to revive a dying flame, and bring new sparks to a fire still smoldering beneath the ashes. Juno Mak’s directorial debut ”Rigor Mortis”, awarded the Fipresci Prize at the 50th Golden Horse Film Festival, is one such catalyst of new vigor. A horror film in which ghosts, a zombie and an evil Taoist priest turn an old condominium into a quite inhospitable abode, Mak’s film is a galvanizing mash-up of cinematic genres that aptly injects new blood into the ailing, yet undying, scene of contemporary Hong Kong cinema. But some back-story is probably needed.

Since the Hong Kong film industry shifted its focus to the booming market of the Mainland, there have been increasing concerns about a creative slump in what used to be one of the most fertile grounds of cinema in East Asia. On the one hand, many of the internationally renowned masters who made their names during the heyday of the HK New Wave have comfortably established new selves as protagonists of the current big budget blockbuster age of Mainland cinema. On the other hand, the younger generation of filmmakers seems to struggle with finding a compromise with the pressing demands of the new market orientation, and most filmmakers haven’t come up with creative solutions to the conundrums posed by the PRC market and its censorship dictates – if not through the safe resorting to proven formulas. It is also true that, as it often happens, there have been signs of an opposite (or even ‘oppositional’) trend – filmmakers, both established and on the rise, who have been centering their attention on the Hong Kong identity, through narratives that are eminently local and cinematic presentations that don’t bother with the need to cross the border to Shenzhen and beyond. The most obvious example of this tendency is provided by the films of veteran Ann Hui. It is true that, throughout her career, Hui has consistently been a very Hong Kongese storyteller, who often times displayed open societal and even political commentaries. Yet, her perseverance in remaining faithful to a territory of stories, characters and tropes somehow stands out among the current migration of talents – in both body and spirit – that has so much affected her fellow HK New Wavers. It is no wonder and an interesting coincidence of sorts, then, that her most internationally recognized film of recent years, ”A Simple Life” (Tou ze, 2011), featured a film producer as its leading male character, and inevitably depicted the local film milieu.

”Rigor Mortis” firmly positions itself as part of this indigenous cinematic resistance. And it does so in very interesting ways. At first glance, ”Rigor Mortis” seems not to care about pleasing Mainland audiences. Juno Mak, who notably gained first recognition in Hong Kong as a pop star and fashion idol, chose in fact to work within the horror genre that has been quite difficult to market in PRC, because of long standing bans against the depiction of superstition, which obviously include the visual presentation of ghosts, zombies and witchcraft. And well, this is what the narrative premise of ”Rigor Mortis” is all about. But there is much more to that. Mak’s film is actually a very clever and stylish reworking of a sub-genre of Eighties Hong Kong cinema, the jiangshipian, or the “hopping vampire” films – the original title of the film is in fact ”Jiang shi”, or ”Geung si”, in Cantonese. Iconified by Ricky Lau’s seminal box office hit ”Mr. Vampire” (1985) such films – centered on living dead who stiffly hop towards their victim – aptly mixed thrills and laughter, in a way that reflected the wider trend of genre hybridization and bastardization that in those days made the idiosyncratic greatness and originality of Hong Kong cinema.

“Hong Kong horrors were never really scary, they were funny,” epitomized one of the very kind and very cinéphile festival staff who assisted us in Taipei. But actually ”Rigor Mortis” is scary. Or rather, it is also scary! Facing an audience who has gone through the J- and K-horror waves as well as the post-”Saw” gorefests, Juno Mak had to cater to probably less flexible palates, and make sure the viewers’ dietary need for thrills was met. And he ticked that box remarkably, with outstanding control over the choreography of terror. Visual and sound effects are used with a keen eye for composition, both within the frame and in the process of editing – which make for an often surprisingly elegant and darkly appealing fashioning of the macabre.

However, at its core, ”Rigor Mortis” very appropriately transcends its horrific obligations. Its paramount accomplishment lays exactly in the impurity of its nature. Juno Mak revives the Hong Kong tradition of genre contamination by spicing up his cinematic concoction with the lively zest of comedy and a delicate pinch of drama. It is no coincidence that one could actually identify the three main characters as vehicles of the three genre strands woven together by Mak (although, in a coherently contaminated logic, none of them is immune from partaking into the others). The Taoist priest is obviously the master of the horrific domain, the vampire-hunter, clad in singlet and underwear and covered by a dressing gown, mostly provides the comic relief, while the new tenant (a former film star!) brings in his dramatic baggage of career downfall, family break up and suicide attempts. And while these three characters interact and the tonalities shift and combine, Mak also introduces a panoply of well-designed side characters, i.e. the variegated fauna of the apartment complex.

The setting of ”Rigor Mortis” and its natural population emerge as the very key to access the film. (Over)crowded apartment buildings are one of the most iconic images of the Hong Kong urban landscape. No wonder they have also been one of the ultimate settings of Hong Kong cinema. These spaces, with multiple lives and life stories intersecting, coming together, or ignoring one another, but inadvertently affecting each other, stand for a powerful metaphor of contemporary human aggregation, but also for the effective way Hong Kong cinema managed to portray them. Just as such buildings, Hong Kong cinema at its best was a place where the noble, the ridiculous and the atrocious could coexist and touch each other. This inherently led to offering unfiltered and adogmatic accounts of the irony of human existence.

Finally, one can gladly rejoice in this cinematic taste again, thanks to ”Rigor Mortis”. Either by design or, more likely, by chance, Juno Mak’s debut ends up delivering a pertinent commentary on the state of contemporary Hong Kong cinema: a film about living dead, ”Rigor Mortis” shows us that new revitalizing energy can be found precisely in one’s own cinematic roots.

Edited by Yael Shuv