ONCE UPON A TIME there was a talented young man who appeared to be so dazzled by the spotlight that he was willing to become just another frivolous Canto-pop singer to get there.
That was a decade ago, and Juno Mak Chun-lung has since moved on to more respectable projects. But the redemption narrative for this 29-year-old - once ridiculed for his wealthy background and awkward fit with the mainstream idol-making system - is, apparently, still too convenient for entertainment writers to pass up.
Mak has done his reputation no harm with the horror fantasy Rigor Mortis. His long-time critics will be shocked to find that the singer, fashion ambassador and actor-writer-producer has made his directorial debut without giving himself a part - let alone a starring role - in the movie.
And if viewers stay until the end credits, they may be able to share the last laugh with Mak when a black-and-white portrait of him - a "director signature", he says - flashes on the big screen for a split second.
Beneath Mak's subdued demeanour, it's hard to overlook the air of assurance he's had since Rigor Mortis' international premiere at the autonomous Venice Days section of the Venice Film Festival in late August, as well as its September screenings in the Toronto festival's Midnight Madness and at the Fantastic Fest in Texas.
"The thing is, I made this film when I was 29," he says. "While I wouldn't dare to imagine how large my fan base will become if I'm still making movies at 80; this one frame will be significant as a record of me at 29.
"The film represents me, and I want a record of myself in each film from the time I make it. It'll be done in a different way every time: in my next project, I may appear in a photo that a character walks past."
Judging by the maturity displayed by Rigor Mortis, there's a good chance of that full-fledged film career happening. Despite his previous lack of directing experience, Mak has somehow managed to come up with one of the most impressive feature debuts by a Hong Kong filmmaker in recent years.
A relentlessly bleak and at times nightmarishly gory film, Rigor Mortis pays homage to the geung si (Chinese hopping vampire) subgenre, cemented in popular consciousness with the success of the classic Mr Vampire (1985) and its sequels, which Mak considers a childhood favourite.
"I just wanted to bring back [this film tradition] which was once really glorious," he says. "You can't even call the original a cult film because it was such a big box-office hit then."
The new special-effects-laden horror fantasy was developed from an original story by Mak, his second screenwriting attempt (after 2010's Revenge: A Love Story). It is co-produced with filmmaker Takashi Shimizu, a leading representative of the J-Horror movement with his The Grudge series.
"Maybe because [Shimizu] is also a director himself, he gave me a lot of freedom in the creative process," says Mak. "He helped me with the sound effects and the overall colour tone. But he didn't change my script or ask me to shoot or edit the film in any particular way. He could probably understand that although this film belongs to the horror genre, it's not just a horror story. It's a heavy drama on human nature."
With Rigor Mortis, Mak says his intention is "to tell a story about a group of middle-aged people who have lost their way in life". He has reunited some of the original cast members of the Mr Vampire series (Chin Siu-ho, Anthony Chan Yau), along with veterans Paw Hee-ching, Kara Wai Ying-hung and Lo Hoi-pang.
Chin plays a washed-up version of himself who is abandoned by his family and sees his acting career come to a grinding halt. As he checks into a haunted public housing estate to take his own life, the former action star's attempt is stopped by Chan's Taoist master-exorcist character, who, thanks to the decline of his profession, has gone from fighting the undead with sticky rice to cooking exactly that at a neighbourhood food stall.
Among the solid performances of the veteran cast, it is Paw's turn as a benevolent-turned-evil housewife - complete with a virtuoso five-minute take in which she displays every emotion possible - which truly stands out. Paw was named Best Actress at the 2009 Hong Kong Film Awards for her role in Ann Hui On-wah's The Way We Are and her memorable supporting part in Rigor Mortis virtually ensures the 64-year-old a nomination at next year's awards.
"Paw Hee-ching is an actress whose potential seems to have no bounds. I looked for someone who's considered a good person by everybody," says Mak. "Like [the semi-retired] Chan, who was known for his comical roles in the past, I'm casting him as a depressed, mad scientist type who's been left behind by the world. I try to flip around all the images that these actors have been typecast in."
You can bet on Mak knowing a thing or two about being pigeonholed - and a few inventive ways to break away from the categorisation.
His recent collaborations, for instance, include a music album cover shot by the legendary photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, and a music video in which Rick Genest (the fashion model better known as Zombie Boy) plays his alter ego. He is also developing four screenplays - none in the horror genre, although it is confirmed that one, a crime thriller, will be produced by Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike.
"Actor, singer, scriptwriter, director … I think I should keep going in all directions at once," Mak says. "At the end of the day, I don't want to restrict myself to be, say, just a musician or a film actor. It all comes back to one point: I like doing creative work."
It sounds like he's having a very good time.
Rigor Mortis opens on October 24 and will be screened as part of the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival on October 26, 9.50pm, Broadway Circuit, The One, Tsim Sha Tsui