Cantopop star, record producer, Hong Kong fashion designer, actor and writer: the multifaceted Juno Mak makes his directorial debut with Rigor Mortis, an elegant dramatic horror film that’s both a melancholic story of bereavement and a sombre love letter to Ricky Lau’s hopping vampire classic Mr. Vampire (1985).
Mark Player talks to Juno Mak about reuniting the cast of Mr. Vampire, working with J-horror icon Takashi Shimizu and, of course, hopping vampires.
Mark Player: You first began your career in the music industry before branching out into acting. What made you then decide to transition to directing?
Juno Mak: I never went to university; I started working when I was 18. Fortunately, I got signed under Universal Music and when I was 17, I spent a year in Japan doing all sorts of training – signing, dancing and speaking Japanese. Then I started working as a singer. But to me, I guess, throughout all these years, composing a melody, singing a song, or producing music, writing a script, being an actor, or being a director and a producer all goes back to being creative. It’s just a different way to express creativity; sometimes through music, sometimes through visuals.
Even before Rigor Mortis you seemed keen to start to writing scripts for films, for instance, Revenge: A Love Story (2010), which you also starred in.
Revenge: A Love Story was a great experience. I was very lucky because that was my first script and I wrote it without knowing whether it would be made into a film or not. There wasn’t such a genre in the market at that moment, so I just wrote it out of curiosity. Luckily we found a producer and investor who were interested in such an extreme, depressed, heavy genre film. It was done with a very low budget and we shot only for 19 days, I believe. Being able to make Revenge: A Love Story was very surprising for me, as was the film festival circuit after we finished production. We got invited to the Moscow International Film Festival. That was my first time attending a film festival and we were fortunate to get the Screenplay Award; the director, Wong Ching-po, won Best Director as well. We also attended the Puchon International Film Festival in South Korea and won another award for Best Actor. Soon I was approached by different producers. They were looking to do a sequel to Revenge: A Love Story, which was difficult for me because I’ve never really believed in doing sequels. Other producers asked me what kind of genre I would like to explore if I could write something of my own will,? That’s when I brought up the hopping vampire (jiangshi) genre, which was very popular during the 1980s but has been gone for almost 30 years. They were willing to let me explore this genre and that’s how Rigor Mortis started.
Rigor Mortis explicitly references – and even subverts – tropes from that Golden Age of jiangshi films you just mentioned, specifically the Mr. Vampire series. It’s very self-referential and very… meta, let’s say. Where did the idea for this approach come from?
At first, it’s about my childhood. I grew up in Vancouver and Mr. Vampire played a big part in my childhood. Renting it on VHS, I watched it so many times that I guess it just got stuck in my mind. I am very familiar with the hopping vampire genre and when I was approached to create Rigor Mortis, I started giving it a lot of thought again. I don’t believe Rigor Mortis is a remake of Mr. Vampire. Since the original film was so popular and great, I didn’t think it was necessary to do one. Approaching this genre, I felt that I had to have a different point of view. Mr. Vampire is more of a comical horror type of film and Rigor Mortis became a heavier, more humane type of film. But by reuniting the original cast of Mr. Vampire, I believe that there’s a certain homage. Sadly, some of the main actors from the film have passed away and others have retired.
Yes, I noticed that you pay tribute to those that have passed in the end credits (Ricky Hui and Lam Ching-ying). But you did manage to reunite actors Chin Siu-ho, Anthony Chan, Richard Ng and Billy Lau from Mr. Vampire. How did it feel to work with these childhood heroes?
It was beautiful. Again, I don’t believe in remaking such a classic, but by reuniting the cast, I felt I got a cast that was much older and more experienced. Most of them are now over 50, and seeing the wrinkles on their faces was just so beautiful. I wanted to make the film about people who have entered a certain age and are quite confused or uncertain about the future. They are broken, basically.
Chin Siu-ho plays a washed-up version of himself, and is also suicidal and mentally disturbed. What was his reaction when you first gave him the script?
We had worked together before. He played a role in Revenge: A Love Story, and that’s how I first met him. He’s always been an action figure, even in the original Mr. Vampire. So when I told him the idea for Rigor Mortis, it was a huge challenge for him because I’m not in for the action, or the stunts; I was more into the idea of him as this fictional character. He lives very happily with his family, so the whole depressive, washed-up side of him is my fictional point of view.
It took me quite a while to get him to open up about his feelings and how he could be more emotionally naked in front of the camera. He’s very healthy and very into sports, and he’s very happy with his family. So I had to make him look depressed as quickly as possible because we only had about three weeks of pre-production. I feel really sorry about it now, but we basically had to torture him to make him very depressive. We consulted three different doctors on the fastest way to break down a person and they all came up with the same solution, which was to not let him sleep. So during pre-production, we had to break up his sleep every two hours. We’d call him and have him stay on the phone for at least 10 minutes before he could get back to sleep, and then we would call him again two hours later. He also went on a diet so the whole process was definitely a torture. But it turned him into what he looks like in Rigor Mortis within three weeks. It was a cold-hearted decision, but he understood.
There’s a scene right near the start of the film when he is unpacking old film costumes that his character has kept over the years. Were they the genuine article?
Some, yes. Some I had to remake because they didn’t keep a lot of the costumes from the original Mr. Vampire. So some of them were the originals and others were the result of my own interpretation from the films I remembered seeing him in as a child. When it came to the hopping vampire, we ended up doing a whole new costume design.
Because horror films tend to be very transnational in their appeal, was it a case of trying to strike a balance between, on the one hand, making a film that was rooted in Chinese folklore and, on the other, making something that a modern international horror audience aren’t going to scoff at or find a bit silly? There’s certainly a lot less hopping in Rigor Mortis than in Mr. Vampire.
I believe it’s definitely more towards the drama side as opposed to the horror side. I didn’t make this film intentionally to be horror. I’m not really into the blood, the gore, or making you jump in your seat. There are moments like that in Rigor Mortis but those are not my main concern. My main concern is about this group of people. For example, I wanted to see how Nina Paw’s character [the widow who wants to resurrect her dead husband in the film] transforms from a really friendly person into a really evil one. Even with Anthony Chan’s character, you can see they are all about the fear of losing, or not knowing what to do about their lives. So definitely Rigor Mortis is about drama and these lost souls instead of just horror thrills.
Having said that, you co-produced the film with Japanese horror cinema veteran Takashi Shimizu, perhaps most famous for Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) and its various permutations. How did he get involved, and what did he bring to the project?
Takashi Shimizu got on board right after I finished shooting the film, so as a producer he joined us pretty late. He worked mostly on the post-production with me. I met him in Japan. I guess the reason he was interested in the project is that the hopping vampire genre plays a big part in Japanese pop culture as well, so people there recognise it too. With Ju-on, he has become a popular name in the horror genre, but deep down I believe he tends to want to work on a more character-driven story that’s heavy on drama. So when he read the script for Rigor Mortis, he saw the elements in it that are more than just thrills, blood and gore. I believe he’s always wanted to make films that are more than just horror. And of course with his experience and insights, he assisted me with things like sound design, the colour tone and the CGI.
So, I guess Rigor Mortis is a revival or sorts for jiangshi films?
The genre has been gone for a long time. It used to be a very commercial and popular genre in Hong Kong. Why did it disappear? That was my main question when I was working on the script. When we were in post-production, we got the announcement from the Venice Film Festival that the film had been selected to play there. That was a big triumph for the team because it had been a very long shoot. We had shot for 70 days, and post-production was almost a year. We never really expected it, and from there the film had a life of its own. It went from Venice to Toronto, then to Tokyo and Taiwan, and then it came back to Hong Kong for the premiere. I guess what connects this film to the audience is more than just the hopping vampire genre, it’s also the characters, the love among these older people. I guess it’s a very universal topic. Of course, at the same time it has a sort of mythical essence to it that got people’s attention.
The film is incredibly stylish and features a lot of special effects sequences. Was this daunting, considering that you were directing for the first time?
Yes… I guess it was like a mission, or a goal for me to achieve. During pre-production, that’s what I wanted, even with the minor details. We’ve seen at lot of hopping vampires from those original films and we absolutely understand the way they hop, but is there another way that we could show it? For our film, we put the hopping vampire in a water tank because I really wanted that slow-motion effect for his clothing and the way he moves. It was a very difficult moment, and because no one had ever done something like that in Hong Kong cinema before, we had to design and build our own tank. But since you can’t really hop in water, we had to use eight wires and four scuba divers to push the stuntman forward in order to present that hopping visual. That’s just one example, but there are lots of minor details like this throughout the whole film. The concern I had as a first-time director was that I wanted people to tell the difference between this film and the other hopping vampire films that came before it. I had plenty of ideas for the visuals and, fortunately, my producers were very patient with me. It was an experiment for all of us because a lot of the things that I wanted to do hadn’t been done before in the Hong Kong film industry. So I am very grateful for having such a great team.
Another element to the film’s style that shouldn’t be overlooked is the apartment block that the whole story takes place in. Was it a real location?
It was based on an actual place. We went location scouting and looked at a lot of housing compounds in Hong Kong, and that was fascinating to me. However, there were technical issues to consider and although these places looked interesting, there wouldn’t be a lot of space for the camera, lighting or the wire rigs. So we had to build our own corridor and all the apartments along it. I guess what you see in the film is about 20% real housing compound and about 80% on set.
What’s next for you? Are you looking to continue directing?
It’s kind of funny, in a sense. When travelling with the film to festivals, I was approached to do a Rigor Mortis sequel. That’s when I realised that I don’t have much more that I want to express in this genre. I want to move on to a different genre, so I have started work on a new script that has nothing to do with Rigor Mortis, or ghosts, or vampires; it’s more of an epic crime thriller. The first cut we did of Rigor Mortis was three hours long and had a lot more character development and extra scenes. I got many people asking if they could see this longer cut. At a certain point it became a pressure for me because I felt like I needed to take a break from it. I may revisit it later, after directing some other films, and maybe I’ll get a different perspective on it. The script I’m working on now is going to be a long shoot. The scale, the budget, the cast, the story, the shooting days, and the technical difficulties I think will be 10 times heavier than Rigor Mortis, so that’s my main focus at the moment. The working title for it is Sons of the Neon Night.
Interview by Mark Player
Watch the trailer: