In Hong Kong, vampires hop. The Jianshi (literally translated as “stiff corpse,” but who cares about literal translations?) are undead creatures that, arms outstretched (not unlike our vision of Frankenstein’s Monster) jump to get from place to place. It’s more than a little ridiculous to consider, but that’s the myth. In the mid to late 80s, the Mr. Vampire series took the Jiangshi legends and turned them into horror-comedy gold. It set off a craze that died down during the 90s and by the 2010s has been all but extinguished.
Except for Rigor Mortis, a new hopping vampire film that is a tribute to the good old days. But unlike those films, Rigor Mortis isn’t funny. Not at all.
Rigor Mortis (殭屍)
Director: Juno Mak
Release Date: June 6, 2014
Country: Hong Kong
If the characters didn’t say that the evil in Rigor Mortis was a vampire, I wouldn’t have known. The Jiangshi bear no clear resemblance to the Bela Lugosi-style vampires to which many of us are accustomed. Although at one point a hunter sharpens a stake and there seems to be something involving the sun, if they had said “zombie” instead, I would have rolled with it. But it’s interesting to see other takes on the vampire idea. Let the Right One In was so successful not just because it was a great movie (although it definitely was), but because it brought back the idea of vampire invitation that made for a fascinating story. Byzantium, for all of its narrative flaws, created a story that was even less like the traditional image of a vampire and created something that was extremely compelling on the surface.
But those are European vampires (then again, so are ours (Bram Stoker was Irish)). And if the Chinese want to call Jianshi vampires, who am I to disagree? The name for the monster doesn’t really matter. It’s kind of the least important thing about the entire film. But if this is an homage to a film called Mr. Vampire, it had to be addressed. Now let’s talk about the damn thing:
A movie star tries to commit suicide. That is the first real thing we see. Siu-Ho Chin (apparently playing himself, since his character has the same name) is a deadbeat with a family who has left him, and he moves to an old, creepy apartment complex to die in peace. He fails, stopped by a badass chef who was once a vampire hunter, and then tries to just live life in that unsettling place, haunted by ghosts or something. Honestly, I was never really sure what the various monsters were, because unless they explicitly said, “Ghosts,” how was I to know? But they seemed like ghosts, extremely dangerous ones at that. Girls who died in horrific ways years before have a hold over that room, scaring its inhabitants and working to get out and cause serious harm to the people around them.
Those girls (referred to as “The Twins”) are actually Rigor Moris‘s primary villains, and are the cause of most of the scary things that go on. The vampire (there’s only one) doesn’t emerge until right near the end, and his creation is a major part of the film. It’s not as easy as “Get bitten, change”; there are rituals and incantations and all sorts of things that can get in the way. But when the evil is finally unleashed, the results are brutal. Rigor Mortis has a whole lot of the red stuff. I’ve always appreciated the fact that Asian films are willing to kill just about everybody, because it makes them much more effective than their American counterparts. When you know that someone is going to live, you don’t fear for them.
In Rigor Mortis, you fear for everyone (assuming you care about them at all, which is hardly a guarantee), because everyone can die (and, spoiler alert, a lot of them do). Unfortunately, some of the deaths are hampered by an overuse of CGI (specifically with regards to the ghosts (or whatever) I mentioned before) and others by some not-totally-consistent rules of human fragility. Nearly every death is affecting is some way, shape, or form, but sometimes the initital, “OH!!!” is followed by a, “… What?” That’s unfortunate, because there’s definitely some cool stuff. Like martial arts, for example.
While Rigor Mortis may not be the best martial arts film, it’s definitely a unique take on the genre, and it totally works in context (even if there’s no real reason that the confrontations are so technical). There’s a very special type of tension that’s created by a seriously violent fight scene, and the big confrontation between the Jianshi and Sui-Ho Chin has that in spades. It’s a great scene, easily the Rigor Mortis‘s best, and it makes me wish that every vampire film had martial arts action. No, it’s not particularly scary or tense in the way a horror movie is tense, but it’s a whole lot more interesting to watch.
Unfortunately, much of the goodwill that Rigor Mortis‘s great third act builds up is completely destroyed by one of the worst endings in recent memory. It brought to mind the Japanese film Tormented, which pulled a similar (although even less acceptable) twist that just made vast swaths of the film totally irrelevant. But unlike Tormented, the twist in Rigor Mortis comes in right at the end, and it’s possible to have a totally consistent narrative experience without it. In fact, the narrative only makes sense if you ignore the last couple of minutes, because the implications basically negate everything that come before.
And that’s like 87 different levels of not okay.
But you can avoid that problem entirely, by walking out of the theater a few minutes early. The film opens with the aftermath and then jumps back in time. When it returns to that present, leave. You got your narrative. It is as satisfying at it’s going to be, and you’ll be reasonably happy. Every extra minute you stay will just make you resent the film more and more, and by the time the credits roll, you’ll be so pissed off that you text everyone you know to tell them about the bullshit ending you just saw.
Consider yourself warned.