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.

1 comment:

Matthew Bey said...

Yeah, this is on my top five movies of all time. If there's another movie which more efficiently packs everything I love about movies in one place I would like to know what that is.