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Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky

It is difficult to overstate just how incongruous it is to find Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991) appearing on American television. This is an over-the-top work of notorious violence and excess that lived for most of its life as an underground cult movie, and was never intended to enter the viewer's home uninvited. As it happens, these very attributes--the ridiculous gore and the cult movie status--are two sides of the same coin, and understanding that is key to understanding why this movie is what it is.

So what is it? In terms of form, it is a 1991 Hong Kong-Japanese co-production by director Lam Ngai-Choi adapting a Japanese manga. As far as content goes, Riki-Oh is a prison movie. The genre conventions of prison movies are simple but versatile: a dangerous loner is brought into a claustrophobic setting where he (or she) squares off against institutionalized sadism and the cruelty of his (or her) fellow inmates. That modest formula has been used, depending on the inflection given it by various filmmakers, to advance just about any Man vs. Man/Man vs. Society/Man vs. Himself theme you could hope to mention. In the case of Riki-Oh, the inflection given is just pure, limitless grue. There is no deep social critique here, no message to be learned--this is just Man vs. Injury, Man vs. Internal Organs, Man vs. Audience Fortitude.

Fan Siu-Wong, an actor of extraordinary physique and zero body fat, plays Riki, a decent upstanding citizen who goes on a revenge-fired mission when his virginal girlfriend dies at the hands of some heroin dealers. He sets out to track down and punish every single person who serves in the heroin-pushing machine--a quest which takes him into a maximum security prison ruled by the heartless Warden (Ka-Kui Ho) and his obese Assistant Warden (Fan Mei-Sheng, Siu-Wong's real-life father). The story is set in the near future, when the prison system has been privatized, and the Warden exploits his prisoners as a slave labor force for a secret opium garden and heroin refining factory overseen by a quartet of thugs, led by a vicious kung fu master played by Yukari Oshima (a Japanese actress, playing a weirdly feminine man, because why not?). It just so happens that Riki was born with superhuman strength which he cultivates through a specialized form of martial arts designed to transform one's opponent's power into your own energy.

Recounting the plot is largely beside the point, however. The film has little regard for logic, but places a high premium on absurd set-pieces: Riki sets off the metal detector upon his arrival at the prison because he still has five bullets in him from a previous battle; the Assistant Warden uses his mechanical claw of a prosthetic hand to extract his glass eye so he can enjoy one of the breath mints he keeps stored inside it; the head Warden eventually metamorphoses into a nine-foot-tall demonic Hulk for no other explanation beyond "as warden, I naturally must have the most powerful kung fu."

During one fight scene, Riki faces one of the warden's thuggish enforcers. This enormous tattooed brute throws powdered glass in Riki's eyes and slashes his arm with a knife. Undaunted, Riki smashes the sewer main with his fist to clean his vision in the spraying sewage, then repairs his injured arm by yanking the tendons out with his teeth and tying them back together by hand. Riki then hits his opponent with so much force, his eye pops out and is immediately eaten by crows. The thug appears to commit ritual suicide in response, but it's a ruse--he quickly wraps his own intestines around Riki's neck to strangle him, as the Assistant Warden cheers, "You've got a lot of guts!"

Now, mind you, this isn't the most outrageous thing to happen in the movie--it isn't even the most memorable thing to happen in this scene! That honor goes to the moment when the screen momentarily switches to X-Ray vision to depict Riki's fist shattering through his enemy's skull into his brain.

Even by the excessive standards of Hong Kong cinema, local censors felt this movie crossed a line and it was slapped with the Hong Kong equivalent of an NC-17, sentenced to box office perdition. However, it spread like wildfire outside its borders, earning critical raves in the West from stunned reviewers, triggering a semi-authorized sequel, and securing a lasting cult reputation as one of the most extreme things ever to come out of Hong Kong, which is actually a high bar to meet. How did it manage that?

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Hong Kong film industry was enjoying one of the most robust boom periods of its history. A handful of breakout stars were leading the wave--Jackie Chan, John Woo, Tsui Hark--as the island cranked out an astonishingly prodigious volume of movies, far in excess of what could be needed to satisfy the appetites of the country's own admittedly movie-mad population. With the handover to China looming at the end of the 1990s and a history of British rule winding down, Hong Kong cinema was naturally predisposed to an international flavor. All movie prints came ready-made with Chinese and English subtitles offered as a matter of course, which opened up foreign distribution opportunities.

That being said, the growing popularity of Hong Kong imports in America and in the West generally in the early 1990s did not mean these films ended up at the local Blockbuster. Instead they arrived as VHS cassettes stacked high in specialty stores buried deep in various Chinatowns and other Asian ethnic enclaves. Fans were not likely to stumble across Hong Kong movies casually--they had to be sought out.

Arriving in a specialty outlet that offered Hong Kong videos could be a daunting exercise for the unprepared. Thousands of VHS cassettes, packaged in garishly colored sleeves with foreign language titles and unfamiliar stars--where does one start? To that end, a cottage industry sprang up of books (such as Thomas Weisser's Asian Cult Cinema) and fanzines (Oriental Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema) offering guidance about what titles to seek out.

Some Hong Kong filmmakers recognized the peculiar economics of marketing to an audience that has to put considerable effort into finding your product. One approach would be to select especially exploitative titles (Sex and Zen, The Naked Killer, A Bullet in the Head), while a more cynical ploy involved the casting of actors with names chosen for their confusion factor (Jacky Chan, for example, or Bruce Li).

Lam Ngai-Choi hit upon the cleverest and most effective marketing strategy of all. If you know your international audience is likely to consist largely of self-selected fans who will have to put considerable time and effort into even finding your movie, then those viewers have to be baited.

It is precisely the giddy thrill one gets in recounting the crazy details of Riki-Oh (didja see the bit where they kicked that dog in half?) that gave this film its enduring reputation and international audience. The outsized outrage of Riki-Oh was all but guaranteed to single this title out as a must-find. Anyone who has seen it cannot help but talk about it: "You won't believe this crazy movie I saw." The lunatic set-pieces are plentiful--a single punch that knocks a person's head off, a person processed in a meat-grinder into hamburger, someone flayed alive--that the mere act of describing the film serves as a compelling come-on: you've gotta see this. To be sure, this movie is not for everyone. It is an acquired taste. Should you be the kind of person who has this acquired taste, know this: Riki-Oh is coming. It will be coming into your home regardless of whether you know about it or want it to. You should be there to greet it when it does.

By David Kalat

Bey Logan, Hong Kong Action Cinema
Steffan Hammond and Mike Wilkins, Sex & Zen and A Bullet in the Head: The Essential Guide to Hong Kong's Mind-Bending Films
Thomas Weisser, Asian Cult Cinema