Riki-oh: The Story of Ricky (1991)

Riki-oh: The Story of Ricky first published by Movie Gazette – here in a longer, expanded version

There was a notorious scene in First Blood (1982) when Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo established his tough-guy credentials by stitching up his own arm wound. The hero of Riki-oh: The Story of Ricky, whose name is not so far from another of Stallone’s iconic he-man rôles, goes one better: after his arm is slashed in a fight with prison ganglord Oscar, Ricky sews the wound using his own sinew for suture. Then, after having an eyeball knocked clean out of its socket, Oscar disembowels himself, using his own intestines to strangle Ricky – until the latter deals a bone-crushing deathblow to Oscar’s lower skull (shown in glorious X-ray).

There are certain things you expect from all prison films. A sadistic warden. An innocent prisoner. A confrontation in the showers. A fight in the workshop. A skirmish in the yard. An escape, or at least an escape attempt. And then there are motifs particular to individual prison films: the prisoner whose resistance becomes a source of inspiration for the other inmates (Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, 1994); the prisoner who investigates the corruption of the authorities from the inside (Stuart Rosenberg’s Brubaker, 1980); and social commentary on the evils of privatised prisons (John Hillcoat’s Ghosts…of the Civil Dead, 1988). Lam Ngai-kai’s dystopian Riki-oh: The Story of Ricky  has all this and more – and yet from about seven minutes in, it becomes clear that this is no conventional genre movie, as one character has his face sheered off with a carpenter’s plane, while another is pushed face- (and hand-) first into a bed of upturned nails. Before you can say Braindead, you are being subjected to some of the most over the top, inventive gore ever committed to celluloid.

It is also a martial arts film like no other, with characters’ fists not just making full contact with their opponents’ bodies, but actually going through them. When one person in The Story of Ricky threatens to turn another ‘into mincemeat’ or to cut them ‘into little pieces’, their words are meant all too literally. So be warned: if blood and guts are not your thing, then avoid this film like ebola – for they do not come thicker, weirder or funnier than here.

Based on a popular Japanese manga, and released in 1991, The Story of Ricky has the honour of being the first totally sex-free Hong Kong film to receive a Category III rating (equivalent to the UK’s 18 certificate). Apart from Ichi the Killer, it is the only live-action film ever to capture the anarchic, excessive, highly stylised violence of manga, making it something of a unique viewing experience. All the characters are comic-book cut-outs, whose bizarre costumes and idiosyncrasies more than compensate for their lack of depth. There’s Ricky (Fan Siu-wong), all muscle and quiff, champion of the underdog, fighter for justice, crusader against drugs, absurdly Christ-like sufferer – and amateur flute player. There’s the assistant warden Cyclops (played by Fan Siu-wong’s father, Fan Mui-sang), with a sharp hook for an arm and a false eye – in which he stores breathmints. There’s the warden himself (William Ho Kar-kui), wiry, bow-tied and bespectacled and, as it turns out, more than just a metaphorical monster. And then there’s the Gang of Four, who enforce the warden’s corrupt rule over the prison with their murderous fighting powers.

With these colourful forces lined up against him, Ricky proves that nothing can keep him confined for long, in a truly visceral film that will leave you feeling battered and bruised – but also strangely liberated.

Summary: While not for the squeamish, this film is a cult classic – fast, silly, jaw-droppingly outrageous, and a true original, unlike anything else you will ever have seen. And impatient viewers will be delighted by the padding-free pace of The Story of Ricky, which never fails to cut (and slash) to the chase. Very highly recommended.
© Anton Bitel