Martial arts movies are the drum solos of the seventh art. Time honored classics of the genre like Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon begin and end with the technical performance of the protagonist’s body. They act as documentaries to an ability that are framed around a fictional narrative. Because of this, many martial art films, much like drum solos, can come off as dull, numbing, and masturbatory displays for those not entirely invested in the performance itself. Despite the fact that Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky works itself around the most typical narrative thread for a martial arts film, (i.e. a handsome, physically skilled protagonist enters a despotic system and punches everything until there is nothing left to punch,) Ricky nor his physical abilities are the stars of the film. The stars of Riki-Oh are the victims, both of the villains and of Ricky, and the focus of the action is the boundless amounts of gore distributed to those unfortunate enough to end up in this absurd future-prison.
Directed by surrealist Hong Kong filmmaker Lam Niga Kai, Riki-Oh is an adaptation of the Japanese manga of the same name by Masahiko Takajo and Saruwatari Tetsuya. The story is set in the near future (1991’s 2001). Government services, such as prisons, have been privatized in capitalist nations. In the words of the expository info card, “Prisons, like car-parks, have become franchised business…” Ricky, incarcerated over the vengeful murder of a drug boss, enters the prison and immediately sets to work battling the deeply entrenched corruption and cruelty. He eventually confronts the four flamboyant prisoners that run the internal criminal operation, the Gang of Four (not to be confused with the post-punk group from Leeds), and the corrupt Wardens .
Ricky combines his natural strength with his families mystical kung fu skills. He is instructed by someone he refers to as Ghost Uncle. I am unsure whether this means that it is his uncle who is a ghost, or is a ghost who he adopted as a symbolic uncle figure. In either case they practice in a graveyard which makes total sense. (Note: You would think that a ghost, familial or not, would have more respect for other people tomb stones, which they go through dozens of in their practice montage.) By the end of his two year tutelage he is a killing machine that can withstand devastating pain and injury, can heal himself rapidly through deep breathing and meditation, and can punch through human bodies like they were wet paper bags full of ground beef.
The previous simile may appear to be unnecessarily graphic, but in that sense it is ideal in describing Riki-Oh. The film ranks with Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy in its gleeful depiction of gore and its employment of cheap practical effects to depict said images of violent bodily destruction to great excess. The first major fight features Ricky getting his eyes lacerated by metal filings hidden inside of a knife, a man gets his eye struck out of his skull and eaten by crows and then cuts open his own stomach in a feint seppuku only to use his intestines to strangle Ricky. Mind you this is within the first 30 minutes of the film. The best is yet to come.
Very few films dare to keep up with the absurd hyper gore found in Japanese manga, but Riki-Oh’s notably accurate adaptation takes up the task with gusto. So much in fact that upon its release it received a Category 3 rating, the equivalent of NC-17 in the US, a rare achievement for a non-pornographic film in Hong Kong. Perhaps because of this harsh rating, the film did not fair well on its initial local run, nor its international run in 1993. It is only become infamous among cult aficionados strictly from sheer force of will, word of mouth, and use as a repeated clip punchline in very early episodes of the Daily Show pre-Jon Stewart.
Yet it is this absurd gore that allows its message to be broadcasted so effectively. Granted the message is not very complex or profound, a blood splattered fist does not make the finest paint brush, but to say that it is without message or thought would be doing the film a great injustice.
Riki-Oh follows in the footsteps of body horror masters such as David Cronenberg and Shinya Tsukamoto in distorting or obliterating the human forms in narrative to express its message. In this case that a for-profit prison system takes an already dehumanized group of people, prisoners, and reduces them to a slave resource that is forced into extreme submission for a potentially indefinite period of time. The privatized prison is turned into a labyrinth of booby traps and drug farms. Even the universal blood red floors call to mind the convenient tint of old slaughterhouses. When so much death occurs in one place, it is more convenient to match death’s shade then attempt to remove it constantly.
This also applies to the violent acts themselves. In a typical martial arts film, violence is distributed to a body until the body stops getting up. Particular violent dispatches may also feature a limb being broken or a particular deep cut with the appropriate fountain of crimson. When Ricky kills someone, they are reduced to piles of loose meat. He doesn’t punch people, he punches into people. A particular blow connects with his opponents fist, this triggers his arm to explode up to the elbow. He then finishes off his opponent by uppercutting his lower jaw off. The fragility of the human form is maid plain by the wrath of Ricky, and its reduction to disposable flesh is made clear in the action.
Something to remember though is that the provider of such grisly examples of the grotesque is also the one to remind the wardens, and the viewer of the victim’s humanity. When one opponent is not spared by his masters and is crushed in one of the prisons many traps, Ricky shoves a photograph of the henchman and his mother in the face of his oppressors, reminding them of his real identity outside the confines of the dehumanizing systemic violence. In fact, outside of his trail of vengeance Ricky is showed to be docile, almost virginal in his appearance in his white knit sweater and slacks, cavorting in young love. His brutal, grotesque violence is only employed when confronted with a system of equal brutality. Naturally, the final scene of the film is Ricky, brandishing the monstrous head of the warden like a fascist medusa, punching a 15 foot wide hold in the outer wall of the prison and declaring that all of the prisoners are now free.
This ending is rather dubious in the larger context of the film. After all, a prison is a small dystopic system within a larger dystopic system. Ricky and his army of decent prisoners will still be labeled as prisoners as soon as the authorities arrive at the carnage within the prison (there is even a hint of outside society reacting to the events when the fire department calls during the burning of the opium fields). A society rotten enough to produce this prison will not see the goodness in Ricky’s actions. It then needs to be said that Ricky is not simply bursting out of the confines of the prison, but symbolically tearing down the fascist state at large, as any good idealistic radical would.
Riki-Oh is by no means clever, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give it credit for at least being able to say something. This Hong Kong gore fest transcends many of its schlock counter parts as a incredibly entertaining, insane, message movie that is disturbingly prescient to our own times, and for that, I am glad it exists and is readily available for me, or you, to watch.