He Tied His Own Tendons!: Riki-Oh: The Story Of Ricky (1991)

Knowing that I would go through the entire month of kung-fu films missing some gems if I did not take suggestions from friends as to what I should watch, I decided to call out for suggestions via Facebook and the results were quite notable, many people offering a list of film while others gave a single affirmation as to what one work should be viewed.  I have a friend, who is very into comic books and all things comic related that also happens to have an excellent taste in film, although we find ourselves disagreeing about a lot of films, he, nonetheless, is a person who I find to be worthy of acknowledging when given a suggestion.  I am glad I adhered to his recommendation of Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, because it is a wild, wild film that exists in a cinematic world entirely of its own accord.  In fact, I have often wondered what a kung-fu film directed by David Cronenberg might look like and I now have my answer with this film, which takes body gore and horror to a place way beyond even The Fly.  The gore in this movie is excessive to be certain, but in its sort of over-the-top grandeur it becomes a statement on the nature of violence in action cinema, particularly when considering death and physical attacks upon the body.  Whether this is purposeful on the part of director Ngai Choi Lam is up for debate, but the product does exist and it can be dissected as such, indeed a viewer is offered plenty of flesh, intestine and blood with which to do so.  While this is only the second film is a thirty one film marathon I am wondering the the trope of body as vessel with which morality works through will come to be a larger theme within the genre, because it was certainly passively discussed in Enter the Dragon, and is pretty much the main focal point in this film.  Again, like Enter the Dragon, Riki-Oh also considers the various bodies that can occupy a challenging physicality, whether it be physically disabled persons or an individual whose gender is ambiguous.  The crazier thing about Riki-Oh is that this is only one of many social commentaries or narrative through-lines in the film, all of which seem so well-executed and realized as to be separate films working in some wonderful synchronicity.  It is a film to which I was quite surprised and am grateful to have been suggested.

Riki-Oh begins somewhat in media res with the introduction of a prison that has with the turn of the 21st century become privatized, meaning that large capitalist figures can use the institution as they see fit, exploit workers or affording favors to whomever they please.  The prison in this film is one such place and when recent murder convict Ricky (Siu-Wong Fan) enters the world, he is quickly deemed a threat with his ability to destroy the bodies of other with his intense martial arts.  This destruction is so honed in fact that Ricky can punch through bodies, while also using his own physical form as a human shield, literally deflecting the attacks of other whether they be by fist or gun.  Nonetheless, given that Ricky's jailing is a result of having killed a mob boss, he becomes a threat to the various crime lords working within the prison, many of which are martial arts experts in their own rights.  Ricky is a force that is unstoppable however, beginning immediately he becomes a protector to the persons in the prison, treating them as human beings, while looking at the warden and his group of lackeys as terrible entities bent on destruction.  Ricky begins a series of attacks that first deal with the lowest of the wardens bosses Oscar fending of an attempted strangling by the disemboweled mobster.  Yet, while Ricky is nearly invincible the impossibility of fighting three experts in various forms of martial arts leads to his being tied up by the warden and buried alive for a week, the warden promising that should he survive he will be given his freedom without question.  Yet when Ricky does exactly this, despite all expectations, the warden refuses him the right leading to a complete breakdown of the authority system by not only the other prisoners but Ricky who takes it upon himself to destroy all in his path, whether it be the use of cement to beat the aptly named Tarzan or a chop so intense as to sever a man's head in half, leading finally to his battle with the warden, who it is revealed fights with the same technique as Ricky, one that feeds off of strength.  As such, the warden evolves into a monstrous version of himself that initially gives Ricky challenge, but Ricky proves capable of the challenge and ends up shoving the monstrous warden into a meat grinder, thus destroying him completely.  Ricky immediately returns to the prison yard and punches through the concrete wall, exclaiming that everyone is free as he walks off into what one can assume to be the sunset.

The description I just gave probably makes the movie sound crazy, and I fully understand that, because it is indeed an insane film, one full of gore laden fight scenes and a complete rejection of all physical and biological possibilities, but just because Riki-Oh exists in a state of filmic absurdism does not mean it is not still full of critical possibilities.  There is a very well-executed Christ metaphor in this film, although it does get really on the nose in once scene, just as there are issues concerning body politics and morality.  Yet, what has to be the absolute most fascinating element of this film is the way it deals with the notion of a prisoner.  In fact, I earnestly wondered while watching this film if Angela Davis was aware of its existence, because despite its hyper violence and insane gimmick, it does ask viewers to reconsider their thoughts on the average prisoner.  I say average, because it creates a very tangible and stark difference between the career criminals depicted as vicious and lacking in ethical thoughts, whether it be the money hungry warden and his various lackeys who seem to have no qualms murdering and maiming to assure their advancement and those people who have been placed in jail for a minor or misappropriated offense.  The film introduces viewer to a man who was part of a traffic accident, in which he was allegedly not at fault, yet as others note he killed a police officer, therefore, resulting in his heavy sentence.  This jailing leads to him being physically beaten by the higher-ups for no reason than it is part of the world.  Similarly, Ricky is arrested for killing a local pimp, one that allegedly attempted to rape his girlfriend who dives to her death in order to avoid the defiling.  While killing is always a murky ground the narrative does seem to posit that it was a level of criminality that was being completely ignored by the warden and others who were presumably friends with the crime boss.  I give these descriptions, because the film seems to posit the criminality is often associated to people who are far from deserved of such negative monikers.  Angela Davis has written extensively on this topic and is particularly critical of a legal system that over-punishes for minor crimes and looks away at serious offenses with large scale social impacts.  The race and class elements are not necessarily dealt with in this film, but it is certainly a point of reference that could be drawn with the right lens.  Ultimately, Riki-Oh seems keen on noting the grey areas of criminality, while also warning of the serious dangers and human rights infractions that could emerge from privatizing institutions.

Key Scene:  With many wildly gory scenes to choose from, I guess I will have to go with the jaw-busting upper cut.  I think I actually let out a gasp paired with the screaming of WHAT when it happened.

The DVD for this is not super expensive and while I really really enjoyed this movie, I would suggest a streaming option first, unless you love either kung-fu films or David Cronenberg, in which case buy this immediately.

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