Where does one even begin when writing about this film? On the one hand, it’s an anti-capitalistic tract on the pitfalls of the abuse of power and where an unbridled capitalistic approach to governing can lead. On the other hand, it’s an over-the-top, sensibility-shaking, bubbling cauldron of gore-laden excessive exploitation trash. The film starts out by putting the upcoming action in proper context with an onscreen blurb, “By 2001 A.D., capitalist countries have privatized all government organization. Prisons, like Car-parks, have become franchised business…”
Ricky Ho (Siu-Wong Fan), only twenty-one years old, is sentenced to ten years in prison for manslaughter and assault. While being inducted into the prison system, Ricky goes through a metal detector, which starts pinging wildly, until its revealed that he still has five bullets lodged in his chest. When asked why he didn’t allow a doctor to extract them he replies, “Souvenirs.” The hierarchy within the prison goes as follows; the Warden (Ka-Kui Ho) is at the top; the Assistant Warden (Mei Sheng Fan) is second in command; the four cells are controlled by the Gang of Four.
Within the prison, there are of course inmates who wish to make the other inmates’ life as miserable as possible and even have enough power and money to bribe the guards into, among other things, revoking parole and getting inmates sprung from solitary confinement. One such abused inmate is Old Ma (Kan-Wing Tsang), who has become eligible for parole, but is brutally abused by the turncoat Wildcat (Kai Wing Lam), first by breaking a toy that Old Ma was making out of wood for his son and by having his parole revoked..
The Ricky character who has come to prison after the killing of a yakuza is the subjugated inmate’s reluctant liberator. Ricky had disappeared for two years prior to his incarceration. In that time he traveled around and eliminated triad members using the superpowers he had learned to harness in his ultimate quest to eradicate the bad seeds from society. The superpowers Ricky possesses were taught to him by his Uncle, Master Zhang Shangui (Tetsuro Tanba). Ricky had always had a proclivity towards martial arts from a young age, and his Uncle agrees to train the teenaged Ricky after he tells him that he wants to “learn breath control and focus… to be a true martial artist and to help the weak.” Uncle tells Ricky, “Breath control requires a mild temper — it accumulates energy in the human body and turns it into an inestimable power against attacks. The accumulation of energy should be made freely.”
As is eventually revealed, the prison grounds in Cell “C” are fields of poppy, which brings the prison money in. As do the prisoners whose work within the prison labor shops is a valuable resource. The poppy is turned into recreational drugs and sold to the local hospitals. Upon finding the poppy field, Ricky is, of course, livid as his girlfriend had killed herself while fleeing from a drug lord, falling from a rooftop. Thus, not only is this capitalistic enterprise using the inmates to acquire wealth through forced labor, they also supply drugs to the outside society, which keeps their prisons full and the outside world as perverted as is inside the prison. Once it is established that Ricky has powers that are otherworldly, one can only wonder how he was even captured and incarcerated during his moral crusade against the criminal elements. He seems to be on a mission to break the capitalistic stronghold the prison has become. The Gang of Four is somewhat molded on the four treasonous, perverted, Chinese Communist Party members who rose to prominence during the cultural revolution (1966-1976) under the leadership of Meo Zedong, and became known as the Gang of Four. After the death of Meo, all four would be prosecuted for, among other things, treason, false imprisonment, and murder of tens of thousands of people during the turmoil implemented during the revolution. So, if the Gang of Four in Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky are modeled after the four members of the Chinese Communist Party, then what or who exactly is Ricky? One theory I battered around in my mind was that Ricky is a social enema if you will. A man who is placed in the bowels of the corrupt prison, allowing himself to be captured and contained long enough to destroy the capitalist institution that not only the prison had become, but also the world in general. This film was a Hong Kong/Japan co-production, whose source material was a manga written by Masahiko Takajo and illustrated by Tetsuya Saruwatari, both of Japanese nationality. Ngai Choi Lam, who directed the film and wrote the screenplay was of Hong Kong descent.
But let’s not think that this film raises and stays above its high-mindedness, because ultimately it really is a gruesome tract on the perversion of a diseased bureaucracy which boasts grotesque set pieces and hyper-inflated violence. When Ricky decides to serve justice upon the prison hierarchy, there are not just beat-downs but dismemberment and death. Within the penal system, death is unaccounted for and sometimes a solution to an issue with an inmate. Ricky, an angelic-faced avenger, tries to suppress his anger, but he is constantly motivated to defend himself and his fellow inmates. The Assistant Warden is a bloated, perverted, one-eyed psychopath who has a glass eye, in which he stores his breath mints. The Gang of Four each possess a skill in the art of killing including Hai (Frankie Chi_Leung Chan), a tattooed Yakuza; Laung Chaun (Yukari Oshima), a martial arts expert, who uses a heart punch, which eventually kills the recipient; Taizan (Koichi Sugisaki) and his coconut head crush, and Shorty (Kwai-Hung Wong), who uses his elusiveness and utilizes needle-like stringed weapons to penetrate and bind with. When the Warden returns to the prison after a vacation to Hawaii, he is surprised to hear of the trouble that Ricky has been causing in the prison. With him he brings his oversized, obnoxious son Manabu (Kwok-Leung Wong), who is an unholy terror.
One thing the film does scramble a bit is the fact that it never addresses the convicts as worthy of their incarceration. Old Ma is the only inmate whose backstory is revealed, which was his hitting and killing a police officer while rushing his wife, who was in labor. Even Ricky is only shown justifiably killing the Yakuza who had caused the death of his girlfriend. So, the inmates in this sterile, lax prison system are seemingly the victims of a perverted justice both inside and on the outside. While this film revolves around the martial arts, the real focus is on the effects of single punches as opposed to the protracted fighting scenes. Siu-Wong Fan was trained in the martial arts, his father Mei Sheng Fan was also well-versed and had appeared in many Shaw Brother films. Siu-Wong, from an early age, had accompanied his father to the movie sets and had always fostered a love for both movies and the martial arts. Siu-Wong continues to act, having appeared in the brilliant Donnie Yen films IP Man (2008), IP Man 2 (2010) and Kung Fu Killer (2014). Mei Sheng Fan appeared in such classic films as The Magic Blade (1976), Killer Clans (1976), Magnificent Butcher (1979) and Year of the Dragon (1985).
Yukari Oshima, who appears in the film as Huang Chaun, one of the Gang of Four, is non-revealing gender-wise, the reason a woman is in a men’s prison is also not broached. Haung displays the best martial arts skills outside of Ricky, showcasing an “unorthodox kung-fu,” as Ricky calls it. Haung never allows any femininity to creep into her characterization; she only tips her hat a bit after delivering her heart-stopping punch to Ricky says, “One looks beautiful before dying… especially a man.” Oshima last appeared on screen in 2011, but not before racking up seventy-seven credits, including in the film Fighting Madam (1987) as Madame Yeung, and as a samurai in Shanghai Express (1986). Ngai Choi Lam performed the directorial duties on thirteen films, including the Yun-Fat Chow starring The Seventh Curse (1986), and the underrated Erotic Ghost Story (1990), which starred the legendary Amy Yip. Also look out for the great Phillip Chung-Fung Kwok in a small part as the inmate Kaung; Kwok appeared in the classic Shaw Brothers Films Five Deadly Venoms (1978), Crippled Avengers (1978) and The Magnificent Ruffians (1979), to name but a few. Kwok in the film is the recipient to a blade planted into the side of his face and death chained upon a wooden cross! The great and prolific Tetsuro Tanba has over three hundred screen credits including appearing in, Three Outlaw Samurai (1964), Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), Proxy War (1973) and Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs (1974).
But, I would be amiss if I did not expound a bit on the amazingly over-the-top violence that permeates through the film. Even today the film is still an unbelievably vicious view, that if not for the cheapness of some of the effects would be at times a difficult watch indeed. So, in closing let me say that once seen the film will never be forgotten. The ending must be seen to be believed and it resembles the 1971 Ted V. Mikels film The Corpse Grinders. And as the warden says, at the end “If criminals are human then flies and cockroaches are human too,” but in all reality Ricky and his fellow inmates are more human than the disgusting perverted bureaucracy that raged inside the walls of the capitalistic prison.