Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Living With The Nonliving: RIGOR MORTIS

An early image from RIGOR MORTIS, one of many spectacular sights that will likely stay lodged in viewers’ minds, is a man lying down, caked in mud and gray ash, considering what has brought him to this purgatorial state. The drab color palette of this scene is present throughout the film, which takes place in the haunted confines of a crumbling apartment complex. On one hand it’s fraught with morbidity, on the other, it’s rendered so vividly as to be a continually stimulating jolt to the senses. Fitting too that the prevailing color scheme falls somewhere between black and white, as its story often looks for harmony between good and evil.

Thus begins a somber and surreal callback to Hong Kong’s less celebrated cinematic history of horror and the macabre, and perhaps a culture at large in which the boundaries separating the living and dead are much less clearly defined than in the West. Highlighted by an offbeat sense of humor, the more well known of these films harkening back to the '70s and ‘80s have a widely known signature of the hopping vampire. That image is echoed here with an undead denizen whose leaps are positively airborne, yet here it is treated with grave seriousness. There appear to be numerous other references to the portrayal of supernatural horror in Hong Kong’s cinema; the more familiar one is, the greater appreciation one is likely to have of RIGOR MORTIS’ finer details. Yet there is plenty to marvel at for the uninitiated, who may very well find themselves tracking down its predecessors (and may want to begin with Mr. Vampire or The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires...both being shown at this year's New York Asian Film Festival!)

As one of those not well versed in Hong Kong’s horror oeuvre, I wondered at how much is tribute to tropes of a bygone era of filmmaking and what is the product of director Juno Mak’s imagination. Standouts include a pair of twin ghosts who are the victims of a grizzly sexual crime, spirits overtaking bodies through a combination of incantations spelled out in palm gestures and martial arts strikes, and a resurrection carried out on a corpse preserved by esoteric powders and held together by a heavy shroud of rusted over medallions.

The story backs up to the aforementioned individual, a former actor named Feng, as he takes up residence in one of the dreary apartment units. Here in an electrifying sequence of rapid-fire bursts of images, a self-destructive desire is revealed, either influenced by or attracting the presence of supernatural forces. A longtime occupant of the building intervenes, leaving Feng ostensibly among the living, to wade through the complex web of relations among the buildings’ residents, both corporeal and not.

What distinguishes RIGOR MORTIS from a lot of horror, both recent and not, is its sensitivity to balance and the humanity of its subjects. Forces of dark and light pervade, most clearly in the form of two individuals who are experts on the supernatural and try to vanquish and summon dark forces in turn. There are also subjects coming to terms with past tragedies. An elderly woman’s desire to bring her husband back from the dead is rendered empathetic; the thought of living without her beloved bears a crushing weight leading her down a path defiant of nature and with potentially destructive results. In fact many of the apparently living tenants are sympathetic to their nonliving neighbors. It is again indicative of a culture where life and death are more intimately intertwined; a relationship that may be feared, but is also ultimately accepted.

Operating almost like an omnibus of stories meshed together into interacting parts, the film works best when considered as a dream-like experience. Some of its logic is hard to follow, as is the alive or dead status of the apartment complex’s inhabitants. Some of its most memorable moments may be of little consequence, such as the grim procession of stoically robed figures down a narrow hallway.

The atmospheric, occasionally break-beat laced soundtrack oozes modern cool. So too do visuals that perhaps bear more than a little of the influence of Japanese producer Shimizu Takashi: wiry figures with bulging eyes, girls with black hair that wield frenzied tentacle-like attacks are hallmarks of his J-horror standard Ju-On. Would it be sacrilege to compare the dreamlike combat sequences to those of Wong Kar Wai’s Grandmaster? Perhaps, but I can't shake the comparison and this would appear the perfect time to flout reverential behavior.

The more one tries to apply a logic to what happens, the more confounded one may become. Best to let go and be immersed in the rich tapestry of tradition-inspired fantastic indulgences, let the subconscious soak it in. Perhaps then the out of left field yet curiously intuitive ending will go down that much easier.

RIGOR MORTIS opens June 6 at Village East Cinemas in New York, Pearl Ridge West 16 near Honolulu, as well as select theaters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Me on twitter = @mondocurry

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