5 out of 5 stars
What can one say about ‘Riki Oh: The Story Of Ricky’ except that it’s widely hailed as an undisputed classic within the queer realm of cult, B- status cinema. Directed by Ngai Choi Lam in 1991, ‘Riki Oh’ has the mythic resonance of a film that simply couldn’t be executed in the present time. I first heard of this film from a friend several years ago and, at the time my interest piqued, but somewhere between the fathomless canyon that is the catalog of readily available movies and the monotonous toil of daily existence, ‘Riki Oh’ was sadly forgotten. Noticing that ‘TCM Underground’ was airing the film revived all of my dormant desires to see it and I ensured that I would be available to catch the screening. ‘Riki Oh’ is yet another installment in a long line of films, otherwise lost to a modern viewership if not for the ‘TCM Underground’ revivals. The fact that I was able to see a film like, ‘Riki Oh’ that is teeming with ‘unsuitable content’ on television is a stretch to wrap my mind around on its own. But this special broadcast has shown numerous other films that one would never find anywhere else on television, let alone in a local video store. From out of print Russ Meyers classics, ‘Possession,’ ‘The Town That Dreaded Sundown’ or ‘Electra Glide In Blue,’ TCM Underground is a godsend for obscure film fans everywhere.
Like a ‘Bollywood’ production, ‘Riki Oh’ possesses a full spectrum of narrative qualities usually indicative to a variety of very different films. There is sadness, comedy, drama, action, horror and romance. This sounds like a convoluted mess right? But the shining achievement of ‘Riki Oh’ is that this myriad of usually opposing genre characteristics really works for the benefit of the picture as a whole. I forgot to mention, and I will now for the sole purpose of avoiding any misleading content; that unlike ‘Bollywood’ this film doesn’t include any choreographed dance numbers, for which I am thankful. The trailers and reviews for ‘Riki Oh’ all agree that the film possesses comedic elements, however I never rolled on the floor laughing. Excessive violence, gory impalements and dismemberments in nearly every scene provide for the type of jovial smirks that usually accompany ridiculous dark humor of this kind but was the humor intentional? Martial arts films usually involve ‘silly’ comedic moments of a type similar to those in ‘Riki Oh.’ Certain films have become hilarious to modern audiences, but I sometimes question whether or not humor was the original intention of the filmmaker. I mean we aren’t talking about Chow’s ‘Kung Fu Hustle’ here. Clearly in ‘The Story Of Ricky’ excessive gory humor, akin to that of ‘Evil Dead 2’ was not a misinterpretation but meant to be dually funny and disgusting.
In nearly every analysis I praise films for their ability to transcend genres while blending various qualities and techniques into something pulpy and unique. If ‘The Story Of Ricky’ isn’t a canonical example of this concept in full action then I wouldn’t know what was. Due to this original hodge-podge of cinematic end meat ‘Riki Oh’ has taken on a quality of indescribability. Jodorowsky’s ‘The Holy Mountain’ is a perfect example of a film that, unlike any other, has grown to cult status merely because its unreal imagery blows viewers away. Those familiar with ‘The Holy Mountain’ before seeing can be pleasantly surprised that the film lives up to, and even succeed its hype, while those who stumble onto a screening of the film will assuredly be left speechless (And presumably in search of Jodorowsky’s filmography). A similar theory can be applied to ‘The Story Of Ricky’ which I, who fall into the latter classification of viewer, wholeheartedly enjoyed.
Like I’ve already stated, the strongest quality of ‘The Holy Mountain’ and ‘Riki Oh’ is that they simply couldn’t be made today, none of the variables can ever be replicated, the cinematic stars are not in line. Both films possess a time stamp, meaning that they have aged more like brandy in oaken barrels than second-rate schlock flicks. To imagine a remake of films like these is to conjure the thought of a Len Wiseman rendition of ‘Days Of Heaven’ with a camcorder and excessive digital grading.
‘The Story Of Ricky’ is a prison film first and foremost. The entire setting of the movie takes place in a private prison in the ‘future’ (Which is actually the past now). As could be expected, corruption and conspiracy create the hierarchy in this captive world. Knowing this, the plot, which follows Ricky (A buff good Samaritan and superhuman kung-fu master) in his attempts to undo the wrongs of others and stop violent cruelty in its tracks, all while vowing revenge upon gangsters and bullies of all kinds for his deceased girlfriend’s pseudo suicide, becomes easily predictable. What isn’t expected however, is the seemingly endless parade of villains, each sporting some obscure specialty that attempts to deter Ricky from attaining both external and inner peace.
Like any kung-fu flick the most entertaining aspect is the introduction to each martial artist, learning of their various styles and watching them fight like depraved ballerinas in a fatal dance of death. A variation on this sequence appears in most martial arts films that involve some type of tournament, like ‘Enter The Dragon,’ ‘The Master Of The Flying Guillotine’ and even the famous videogame, ‘Mortal Kombat’ (Which essentially is just an interactive exploration of this concept in greater depth). But ‘Riki Oh’ isn’t really a kung fu film in the traditional sense. It is a revolutionary prison movie with martial arts elements and a defined sense of what is good and evil; and the continually resurfacing, underlying moral that purity shall always triumph over filth.
The notion of ‘Riki Oh’ as a prison film is interesting too in that it tends to follow about half of the stereotypes we normally encounter. While scenes of excessive brutality are present, Ngai Choi Lam never really tries to present us with a realistic portrait of prison life. This lack of realism is what gives ‘The Story Of Ricky’ the original atmosphere that has made it so unique. Parts of the film felt like I was watching Alan Clarke’s ‘Scum’ (1977) witnessing the tension build up until insignificant squabbles between prisoners spell bloodshed. Other times I felt like I was watching Siu-Tung Ching’s ‘A Chinese Ghost Story’ (1987) with whimsically fantastic elements wafting through the air, giving parts of the film a magical feel. The final film that ‘Riki Oh’ reminded me of was Tun Fei Mou’s infamous 1988 exploitation film, ‘Men Behind The Sun.’ I think initially it was the film quality that bore a definite resemblance to this taboo classic, though eventually the subject matter of powerful men with little to no human empathy, to which life is cheap, drew clearer connections.
Asian film covers such a broad spectrum of subject matter and cinematic style that one should never use such a blanket term when analyzing movies. However ‘The Story Of Ricky’ exists within a specialized sub-genre of Asian film that includes other grisly, over the top blood bath features. In this area, ‘Riki Oh’ acts as the grandfather film, one that has blazed the trail for more modern works like, ‘Oldboy,’ ‘Ichi The Killer,’ or ‘Battle Royale.’
Even Quentin Tarantino’s homage to kung fu films ‘Kill Bill’ draws sufficiently from ‘The Story Of Ricky,’ both in its no holds barred attitude and comic use of the human body (And its many detachable limbs). Yet with all of these films, ‘Riki Oh’ was the sole work to achieve an NC-17 rating (An honorable feat in my opinion). Were these newer films less violent or has society become desensitized to gore? This isn’t a question for me to answer, but I must say that I think when a film’s graphic nature is more gay than disturbing; a larger part of society will be willing to give it a chance.
This also brings to mind the ‘traditional’ special effects used throughout ‘Riki Oh.’ CGI never bares its ugly head in this film and for that I am eternally thankful. A remake would surely include CGI, and that inclusion would spell disaster and failure, perhaps even boycott by ‘The Story Of Ricky’s diehard fan base. I don’t think I will ever jump on the CGI bandwagon, believing it more to be an embarrassing fad (Like Skrillex) that viewers years down the road will cringe at when remembering.
‘Riki Oh: The Story Of Ricky’ was a pleasant treat of a film that exceeded my expectations and situated itself within the trophy case of my favorite movies collection. I would recommend this film to lovers of kung fu, horror, and prison movies alike. For those who are satisfied with a weekly sojourn to the movie theatres, where you’re washed with the tepid lye of big budget Hollywood—keep doing what you’re doing, ‘Riki Oh’ isn’t for you.