Imagine Doctor Strange wearing a bathrobe and flip-flops. That’s old Yau. He also cooks a mean bowl of glutinous rice, but exorcism is his real calling. His ominous HK apartment complex keeps his all kinds of busy, but he might finally find an ally when a suicidal actor arrives in Juno Mak’s Rigor Mortis (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Disgraced and bereft for reasons only hinted at, Chin Siu-ho moves into a building so decrepit, it could be in Union City, New Jersey. Of course, Chin does not plan to live there (or anywhere else) for long. However, it turns out suicide is not painless. Given the spirits lurking about, it is a profoundly dark and disturbing experience. Fortunately, Yau intercedes at the last minute, but he keeps seeing the spooks and specters afterward.
Still unsure what comes next, Chin befriends the former tenants of his flat, the emotionally shell-shocked Yeung Feng and her ashen-haired little boy, while tentatively offering Yau a hand here and there. Meanwhile, Yau’s rival, Gau a shaman who cannot resist dabbling in black magic, helps Auntie Mui re-animate her recently deceased husband. Even though she follows his instructions to the letter, Uncle Tung just doesn’t seem to be his old grouchy self. That will get to be thing for Yau to deal with.
As befits a film set within an apartment building, Rigor Mortis is fully stocked with odd characters, many of whom are played by veterans of the Mr. Vampire series. The comings and goings get rather complicated, but the atmosphere trumps everything. Mak and production designer Irving Cheng create a very creepy space. The exorcism process also involves some distinctive martial arts choreography, for extra added genre appeal. However, the ending is rather frustrating, bringing to mind a 1990 mind game film that would be spoilery to name by title.
In a case of meta-meta casting, Mr. Vampire star Chin Siu-ho plays his washed up namesake. He is so convincingly world weary, he practically blows away with the wind. Conversely, his former franchise co-star, Anthony “Friend” Chan commands the screen with his sly presence. Likewise, Paul Chung chews enough scenery for a Hammer Horror film as the reckless Gau. Although best known for her martial arts chops, Kara Wai is also surprisingly affecting as the traumatized Yeung Feng.