Saturday, September 21, 2013

#165: Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (Ngai Choi Lam, 1991)

Oh my god, this movie is insane. I've been meaning to check out this 1991 Hong Kong cult oddity for years, and I finally sat down and did it last night. I was not disappointed. This is 92 minutes of unadulterated lunacy, the kind of lunacy that would only be weakened by common sense, good acting, character development, narrative continuity, and moments of quiet contemplation. I suppose in a certain light, this movie could be considered bad, but I don't want anything to do with that light. If this movie is bad, it is bad in the Michael Jackson sense of the term, ca. 1987. It might even be the work of a genius, albeit a genius who may have been dropped on his head at some formative childhood moment. In short, this is a classic.
Ngai Choi Lam's film, based on a Japanese manga by Tetsuya Saruwatari, is a rare hybrid of kung fu, prison movie, action, science fiction, slapstick comedy, and horror, or, in the rarefied phraseology of Joe Bob Briggs, "splatter fu." Set in the distant future year of 2001, in which prisons have become privatized corporate franchises (what a far-out concept, am I right? (laughs nervously)), the film begins with a police vehicle driving new prisoners to the facility. This scene, a beautifully filmed slow drive in the blueish light of the urban dusk, makes us think we're in for a moody, atmospheric slow-building piece of darkness, not the hyper-kinetic goofball free-for-all of craziness we're about to experience. We know things are about to get weird when the police bus pulls into the prison and parks on a giant puddle of bright red blood, and no one acts like it's unusual. In fact, no one mentions it. We're soon introduced to the new prisoners, including Riki-Oh (Siu-Wong Fan). We learn Riki's past in flashback sequences sprinkled throughout the film, but our first real taste of the strangeness of Riki is that he sets the prison metal detectors off even though he's packing no heat. An x-ray scan reveals five bullets lodged in his chest. "Why didn't you let the doctors take out the bullets? Why do you still have them in you?" the guards ask. Riki gives them a Clint Eastwood stare and says, "They're souvenirs."
The prison turns out to be a real hellscape. The warden is away on vacation, but the assistant warden is a sadistic, chubby Kim Jong Il lookalike with a hook for a hand and a missing eye he fills with a fake plastic one that also doubles as the carrying case for his dinner mints. (No, I didn't make that up.) There are four cell blocks in the compound, named after the four directions. Each block has an inmate who serves as its feared leader, each one a highly intimidating martial artist in the good graces of the warden: a heavily tattooed gangster bully, a lumbering giant of a man who can crush your head with his bare hands, an effeminate pretty boy with some blisteringly insane kung fu moves, and a very short and very ugly little dude with bleached blonde highlights and some pretty insane kung fu moves of his own.
Riki is no slouch himself. Born with superhuman strength and trained in the martial art of qigong, he can do some real damage. If you get Riki pissed off, and especially if you make him taste his own blood, he will punch the shit out of you. "So what?" you ask. "I can take a few hard punches." Maybe, but Riki's punches are so powerful that over the course of the film, he will punch the jaws, tops of heads, legs, and arms off of challengers, and his fists will go through stomachs, chests, and faces like he's punching through soft butter. This movie is wall-to-wall, over-the-top, nonstop gore. There is more splatter in ten minutes of Riki-Oh than in five Lucio Fulci films combined. If you find exploding body parts hilarious, as I do, you will find your holy grail in Riki-Oh.
Riki's extreme strength draws the attention of the cell block leaders and assistant warden, who want Riki as an ally for their corrupt and evil deeds, including growing poppy for opium and heroin. Riki's having none of that mess, though, and he finds himself the target of many sneak attacks and torture sessions. His friends in the prison turn up dead, in remarkably gruesome ways. Soon, a full-on war between Riki and the corrupt prison infrastructure breaks out, and things heat up even more when the evil warden and his pudgy, spoiled, idiot son return from their vacation. Skulls will be punched off, arms will be turned into hamburger, guys will morph into monsters, people will blow up like balloons and explode for some reason even though they're shot with normal handguns, scaredy cats will hide in tiny elevators, and cement walls will be destroyed like a toddler smacking over some Legos. Riki will also demonstrate his mastery of the flute. Hell yes, he will.
You probably know whether you're the target audience for Riki-Oh or not. I sure am. If you haven't seen this little beauty yet, go down to your local independent video store and check it out. I realize many of you may live in towns or cities where the local video store no longer exists, but you're in luck. Riki-Oh is currently streaming on Netflix.
Normally, I'm an advocate for watching the subtitled versions of foreign-language films instead of the dubbed versions, but I'm making an exception here. In the finest kung fu tradition, the English dubbed version is nonstop hilarity. The guys doing the voices are so ridiculous, and the dialogue is so nuts that I laughed pretty much continuously. Here are just a few gems: "Your kung fu is unorthodox." "You're a grown-up now. Do you still have superhuman strength?" "The warden of any prison has to be the very best in kung fu." "You were as strong as a bull, and so I named you Riki." Life is mostly garbage, but there are some magic things about being a living human being in the present era. This movie's existence is one of them. People made this. Other people paid them to make this. This really exists.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

#164: Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)

Over the course of his long career, Roman Polanski has worked in many genres (horror, drama, comedy, thrillers, children's adventure, literary adaptations, film noir, and various combinations of the above), but this genre-hopping is always in service to a consistent vision and worldview, a visual style stamped with the personality of its designer, and a determined compulsion to document in as many ways as possible his obsession with claustrophobia and paranoia. The claustrophobia in Polanski's films is often physical, with his characters stuck (sometimes voluntarily) in or on boats, apartments, and houses, but is just as often mental or institutional, with characters confined inside bureaucracies, mental illnesses, unhappy marriages, criminal organizations, secret societies, conspiracies, and their own limitations and weaknesses. The paranoia in these films often occurs naturally as an inevitable byproduct of the claustrophobia and is always justified by events in the plot. Polanski's body of work reveals a collection of characters who grow more paranoid and claustrophobic the closer they get to the truth and a world where the accumulation of information and experience makes people's lives narrower, smaller, and darker.
This is an exceedingly disturbing worldview, but Polanski has had an exceedingly disturbing life. Jews in Poland in the 1930s and '40s, Polanski's family was torn apart by World War II. His parents were captured and sent to separate concentration camps. His father survived, but the Nazis murdered his mother at Auschwitz. Polanski, though only a small boy, escaped the Krakow ghetto and hid in the countryside, sleeping in barns, moving from place to place, and occasionally finding shelter with Catholic families. In 1969, the Manson family murdered Polanski's pregnant wife, the actress Sharon Tate, and several of his close friends at his and Tate's home.
In the mid-1970s, Polanski was tried and convicted of the statutory rape of 13-year-old model Samantha Geimer. He served some time, was released early, and was nearly retried as a result of a legal clusterfuck and a judge with an axe to grind when he fled the United States in 1978. Geimer says she was drugged and raped. Polanski says she wasn't drugged and the sex was consensual. Even if Polanski's version of events is true, the fact remains that a powerful 43-year-old man had sexual contact with a vulnerable child, and the unfair trial, celebrity-seeking judge with a vendetta, and years of exile and persecution Polanski has contended with in the intervening years strikes me as karmic justice for the terrible thing he did, notwithstanding my tremendous admiration of his films and Geimer's forgiveness of him. It's a complicated situation, though, and I despise the phony outrage about Polanski exhibited by right wing pundits who only pretend to give a fuck about women when they can use it as part of their tough on crime posturing and liberal media/liberal Hollywood conspiracy narratives. Enough of that horrible subject. I'm getting sidetracked.
Polanski's second feature following Knife in the Water and several short films, and his first English-language film, 1965's Repulsion, may be his most claustrophobic. A black-and-white psychological horror film about a disturbed young French woman living in London with her sister, Repulsion is a tightly controlled, slow-burning exploration of dread, fear, insecurity, sexual disgust, madness, and loneliness. Carol (Catherine Deneuve), a French ex-pat working as a manicurist at a beauty salon, lives in a nice, spacious apartment with her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), though they're behind on the rent. Carol is a beautiful but nervous and shy woman who lives in her head and exhibits some disturbingly compulsive behavior in private. She's repulsed by sexual behavior, though also fascinated by it. She fears being left alone. Helen is a much more ordinary woman, more responsible, less neurotic, capable of kindness but often exasperated by and irritated with Carol's neuroses, particularly when they create friction with her boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry). Michael is not a terrible person, but he is a condescending and mildly unctuous sort who disturbs Carol. She lies in bed, unable to sleep, while her sister and Michael have sex, and he puts his razor and toothbrush in Carol's glass in the bathroom.
Quietly and gradually, Carol's mental state worsens, though her quietness and shyness do a good job of masking it. The breaking point occurs when Helen and Michael leave Carol alone for a few weeks to go on a romantic trip to Italy. Carol can't handle the solitude, and her fears and anxieties manifest into hallucinations and nightmares. She stops taking care of herself and lets the condition of the apartment degenerate, and things only get worse from there. Still, Carol has every right to feel paranoid about the men she knows, with disturbing results.
Though reminiscent at times of a French New Wave/Swinging London youth picture reimagined as hellish nightmare, and at other times a Hitchcock-worthy paranoid thriller (Polanski even has a Hitchcock-style hidden cameo as a hunched-over street musician playing the spoons), Repulsion, finally, is all Polanski. No one else does what he does, in the way he does it. With the exception of three key scenes, Polanski takes us inside Carol's head, seeing what she sees, reacting to the world the way she does, with the help of Deneuve's remarkable performance, jazz musician Chico Hamilton's percussive score, Gilbert Taylor's beautiful B&W cinematography, and Alastair McIntyre's sharp editing. We share her madness, her fears, her repulsions. The camera lands on objects and imbues them with the dread Carol feels. Her hallucinations are real. We see them, too. As dark as Repulsion gets, we never lose that empathy for Carol. This empathy is what keeps Polanski's films from being too overwhelmingly negative. It's not going to save anyone from the terrible things, but for a brief while, we can share a space that is usually only open for one and help carry the burdens we usually carry alone.