In Chinese legend, the jiangshi is a vampire-like monster known for leaping after the living in order to drain their life force. Both scary and silly, they inspired a whole genre in Hong Kong cinema, one that director Juno Mak has tried to modernize in Rigor Mortis. He failed, but it's still a fascinating failure.
Rigor Mortis is, first and foremost, a tribute to the hit Mr. Vampire films of the late '80s and early '90s, a franchise so popular it established the tropes of all the jiangshi films to follow. In fact, Rigor Mortis mostly stars Mr. Vampire alums, first and foremost the original star Chin Siu-ho as a washed-up actor of the same name, who comes to live in the creepiest apartment building in Hong Kong.
After a failed suicide attempt, thanks to neighbor and former Mr. Vampire co-star Anthony Chow, Chin discovers a variety of supernatural problems in the building, not least of which is that someone committed suicide in his specific apartment already, and she hasn't exactly left. Then there's a traumatized woman with an eerily blond kid, a wizard who keep messing with forbidden magic, and more. Frankly, his least problematic neighbor is Chow, who's an ex-vampire hunter-turned-restaurateur.
It all seems like a pretty clear premise — former movie star must use his cinematic skills in real life to battle some hopping vampires, right? Wrong. Rigor Mortis is almost obnoxiously unconcerned with jiangshi. Most of the movie's run-time as a collection of almost wholly disparate plot threads, associated only by taking place in the same, bleak apartment building. The film seems in no hurry to tell these stories, let alone connect them, and there's a lot of waiting, eating, and smoking in-between the story's developments. (Note: There is so much smoking in this film.)
It helps that the film is beautifully shot, with an astoundingly grim set — The Grudge's Takashi Shimizu helped produce this movie, and you'd be forgiven for thinking he was the cinematographer, because it's so visually influenced by his J-horror movies. Each frame of Rigor Mortis oozes atmosphere and tension, but the film is so glacially paced that it dissipates long before the film's few action scenes come around.
Although the action scenes are great. Look, the movie is not without its qualities; it looks great, it's fantastically acted (especially Paw Hee-Chang as Auntie Mui, who hides perhaps the darkest secret in the film), and it's certainly not silly. But neither is it scary, action-packed, or even that comprehensible, and that's before the film's epilogue, which makes no sense even compared to all of the weirdness that preceded it.
Those familiar with the normally kind-of-goofy jiangshi movie genre in general — and especially the Mr. Vampire franchise in particular — would undoubtedly find Rigor Mortis a richer movie, and I'm willing to bet Mak's update is as bold and impressive to them as, say, Batman Begins was for Americans. But there can't possibly be enough in-jokes and Easter eggs to give Rigor Mortis the structure it needs to be fully engaging as a genre film. Rigor Mortis has a lot of artistry behind it, but I can't help but think audiences would be better off trying to track down the original Mr. Vampire movies instead.