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DIRECTED BY: Ngai Choi Lam
FEATURING: Siu-Wong Fan, Mei Sheng Fan, Ka-Kui Ho, Yukari Ôshima
PLOT: While in prison for murdering a gang of drug peddlers, Ricky defies the tyrannical authorities as he pursues his freedom.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: I’ll get to that; let me gather my severed thoughts first.
COMMENTS: For those hand-wringing types out there, the future will always be filled with violence, drug use, and bizarre minor-coding. Everyone else, take some comfort: this future is already past. Among the details I only gleaned after the fact, Riki-Oh takes place in 2001, in a world where prisons are privatized, and the preponderance of superhuman resilience leaves contemporary (whether now or at the film’s release) witnesses agog. The enthusiasm behind its narrative ambiguity is the very same which renders what could have been a joyless scrap of torture porn into an eminently silly (and occasionally giddy) ride through a dozen-odd stations of the cross, with Ricky as the unflappable messiah preaching justice, hope, and ultra-violence.
Wrongful imprisonment is a well-worn trope, but Riki-Oh demonstrates individuality the moment its hero is processed for triple murder. After some bureaucrats read his sentence, he passes through a metal detector, immediately setting it off. Manhandling Ricky to a nearby x-ray machine, guards discover the alarm was triggered not by weapons, but by five bullets lodged in the murderer’s chest. When asked why they remain, Ricky answers, in his petulantly bad-ass tone, “I wanted a souvenir.”
Riki-Oh has all the finely chopped ingredients for a z-grade gore-house martial arts revengeance nonsense: an evil warden and his flunky, abusive guards, shower fights, yard fights, crack-thwack sound effects, and gallons of blood. But three factors prevent this film from being tossed aside as derivative. First: the tiny oddities that gather to the point of toppling into fully fledged weird. The assistant warden is missing a hand—a cutesy touch, in its way. But in the next shot, what’s this? Why, he’s missing an eye, too. And he drinks from the cup where he stores the glass prosthetic. And, since it’s hollow, this is where he keeps his mints. Not to mention his flanking lapel scorpion cameos, or the tall shelf of pornography behind his work desk that is never mentioned. The second touch brings Riki-Oh more assuredly onto weirder ground: a twist in the final fifteen minutes reveals the evil warden’s backstory, without any hint of reason. I won’t give it away, but it does explain why the bastard is so nonchalant when staring down the prisoner who has dispatched countless prisoners and other goons.
And the third thing. Brief research clarified that Riki-Oh is closely adapted from a manga (no surprises here), and it may be simply mirroring themes from that source. However, the ardor of its twin social justice philosophies manages to outdo its over-the-top violence. Oddly for a martial arts blood piece, it has something to say about the societal evil of drug dealers (with sympathy for users), and has a whole lot to say about treating prisoners humanely. In its way, Riki-Oh advocates for penal rights as fervently as Nagisa Ôshima‘s Death By Hanging did—but instead of ratcheting up sociopolitical surreality into an absurdist climax, Riki-Oh climaxes with the warden ground up into a couple hundred pounds of hamburger. That said, perhaps they’re more alike than I had thought.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…be warned: if blood and guts are not your thing, then avoid this film like ebola – for they do not come thicker, weirder or funnier than here… While not for the squeamish, this film is a cult classic – fast, silly, jaw-droppingly outrageous, and a true original, unlike anything else you will ever have seen.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (DVD)
(This movie was nominated for review by “Horst,” who called it “An absolute must-see, really weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)