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Owen’s Oldies - ‘Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky’

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By Owen Glancy

Asst Arts and Features Editor

Of the films I’ve discussed in this column, “Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky” is easily the most divisive. Amongst people who’ve seen the film, it seems like half love it, while the other half hate it. It might be the most controversial Hong Kong martial arts film of all time. 

Personally, I’m firmly on the side of loving it. 

On the surface, this may look like your average Hong Kong action flick, but underneath it is absolute chaos. Director Lam Ngai Kai worked together with cinematographer Mak Hoi-Man to craft a kung-fu movie unlike any that came before it. 

“Riki-Oh” follows the story of Ricky as he is incarcerated in a futuristic prison in order to track down the remaining members of a corrupt gang of opioid distributors who killed his girlfriend. 

Ricky is a surprisingly great protagonist, and this can be owed to his empathetic writing and Louis Fan Sui-Wong’s excellent performance. This, combined with how hateable the villains are, culminate in the highlight of the film, its action scenes. 

I won’t sugarcoat it, this is probably the most violent film I’ve ever seen. The practical special effects are so impressively realistic, yet over-the-top, that even the smallest skirmishes are more entertaining than most entire films. 

Every insane, gory thing you could think of happens in this film. Dudes get skinned alive, crushed under a hydraulic press, and even put through a food processor. It does not hold back in the slightest, and doesn’t even pretend to hide under the guise of “decency.” 

Not everything here works though. Compared to “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “House,” this film has far more issues. The plot is fairly predictable, the side characters are extremely forgettable, and the few female characters are very poorly written. Even more so than those other movies, this is a cult film through and through. 

When “Riki-Oh” first released in Hong Kong theaters in 1991, it was given a Category III rating, which disallowed anyone younger than 18 years old from seeing the film. It was one of the first films to achieve this ranking with zero nudity, and as such did not perform well at the box office. However, it became a home release hit after children heard of the film and wanted to see it themselves at home. 

In America, it was released two years later in 1993 and became a cult hit for its ultra-violence and hilariously bad English dub. Its campy nature and cult status led to it developing a massive underground following that still persists to this day. 

While I desperately want to go into detail describing all the insane things that happen in this film, doing so would be a disservice. I went in completely blind, only knowing it was gory, and came out with a massive appreciation for this film. 

Something noteworthy to point out about this film is it’s based off a Japanese manga simply titled “Riki-Oh.” The movie sticks fairly closely to the manga, with a couple of minor changes. This was a trend in the early ’90s, with “City Hunter” and “Crying Freeman” being two other manga turned live-action adaptations in Hong Kong. 

Neither managed to achieve the same level of quality or staying power that “Riki-Oh” enjoys, although the “City Hunter” movie stars Jackie Chan and can be a fun time with some friends. 

“Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky” is an absurd film that, despite its rocky release, has endured as a symbol of creative expression and freedom since 1991. Its signature style, over-the-top gore, endearing protagonist, and phenomenal direction have only added to its credibility and elevated it from a cult film to a hidden gem in the vast world of cinema. 

While those sensitive to violence should steer clear, anyone brave enough to venture forth with this film will find something much better than they initially bargained for. My advice, give it a try, it might become one of your favorites. 

“Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky” is streaming exclusively on The Criterion Channel, otherwise it must be purchased on Blu-Ray or DVD. 

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