Hiroki Ryuichi’s “Ride or Die” begins with a premise that sounds like the stuff of hard-boiled neo-noir: Abused by men her entire life, a straight Japanese housewife coerces the long-estranged lesbian friend who’s been in love with her since high school to kill her violent husband. And yet from the start it feels like we’re missing a few key details in the fine print of what’s going on here — there’s something almost right fluttering beneath all this wrong.
Sordid as it might be for Nanae (Sato Honami) to offer her sex to Rei (Mizuhara Kiko) in exchange for a murder, the manipulation is so brazen that it bends all the way back around to its own kind of ineffable truth. Even as it becomes painfully clear that Nanae won’t be able to hold up her end of the bargain anytime soon (she strips naked on the bed of her Tokyo apartment to show Rei a body that’s tattooed with fresh bruises), there’s a jagged sense of intimacy to how well these two women both seem to understand the terms of their arrangement. Maybe this only looks exploitative from the outside. Maybe people are transactional creatures by nature. Maybe, after more than a decade apart, Nanae and Rei still recognize they have something valuable to offer each other in a world that has taken so much from them both.
Whatever the film’s ultimate takeaways might be (and you better believe that mileage will vary), “Ride or Die” doesn’t lead viewers towards them by any obvious route. By the time this rewardingly non-prescriptive slab of pulp fiction even arrives at its flex of a title card — which drops at the end of a bloody 28-minute prologue that pings against everything from “The Postman Always Rings Twice” to “Thelma & Louise” — it’s clear that Netflix’s latest Asian slow-burn isn’t adhering to the path of any particular narrative tradition, least of all those of the soft-hearted Yuri stories that Hiroki’s source material subverted to powerful effect.
Adapted from Nakamura Ching’s popular manga series “Gunjō,” “Ride or Die” is a much-needed change of pace from the kind of modern cinema that reduces every story to its moral arithmetic, and a helpful refresh for the kind of modern audiences who watch movies the same way. It’s a shaggy and distended portrait of friendship that pinballs through time as freely as it does between genres, and a few too many of the 140-minute story’s frequent detours wind up in dead ends, but “Ride or Die” retains enough forward momentum to roll across even its least successful chapters because of how stubbornly Hiroki refuses to keep score between these characters.
Our first impression of Rei is that of someone who’s jackknifed into the deep end even though she doesn’t know how to swim. The handheld camera follows her down into the bowels of a half-empty Tokyo nightclub as Mizuhara (an actress and fashion model who some viewers might recognize from her stint as a local sidekick on “Queer Eye: We’re in Japan”) adds a queasy seasickness to her natural runway stride. She targets a married salaryman, buys him a drink that he’s too horny to question, and lets the guy strong-arm her back to his hotel-like apartment.
It’s only when Rei is naked on top of Nanae’s husband that she reveals her terms: “Give me your wife.” He balks, and her inner Aba Sade comes out as she slashes the man’s jugular open and gets jet-sprayed in his blood. It’s not the last time that “Ride or Die” seems like a strange title for a movie that doesn’t force anyone to choose between the two. Perhaps there’s a version of this story where Nanae might hang Rei out to dry; the murder is a clumsy one that’s captured on a dozen different cameras, and Nanae knows that Rei loves her enough to spend the rest of her life alone in jail for a killing they conceived together.
For all we know, that might’ve been exactly what Nanae had in mind when she called her old friend out of the blue and began to prey on the kind of infatuation that money can’t buy. But Nanae — who Sato endows with the sunken volatility of someone who grew up poor enough to know exactly how far their power travels — can’t quite bring herself to let Rei take the fall. She intercepts Rei on her way to the police station, and the two embark on a fugitive road trip into the past with the fuzz hot on their tail.
Everything about this setup reads familiar, but “Ride or Die” is fueled by enough residual teenage energy and lopsided sexual friction to shift gears at a moment’s notice, which is perfect for a movie that would rather throw everything in reverse at the drop of a hat than dare to spend a few minutes in neutral. Nanae and Rei don’t act like killers on the lam so much as they do a couple of old friends who are on an overdue girls trip; they don’t skulk around or freak out about the trail of evidence they’ve left behind, they sing along to their favorite pop songs from high school (e.g. “Lovefool” by The Cardigans and “CHE.R.R.Y” by Yui) and eat fast food and joke about their corpses blowing up. They’re not blithely sociopathic — of all the things this movie is not, “Natural Born Killers” is at the top of the list — but they’re living inside the fairy tale bond they were never allowed to nurture in real life.
Sometimes old memories take hold in the form of long flashbacks as these women finally get to compare notes about the secret histories they’ve never been able to share with anyone else. We learn that Rei came from a rich family that wouldn’t accept her sexuality, while Nanae was the product of a poor and broken home, and had to sell her body from a young age; first as a star athlete, and then as a wealthy man’s wife. It’s something that Rei pitied about Nanae even as she tried to buy her friend for herself. “Ride or Die” refuses to shy away from this dynamic — neither from the idea that two people could need each other for very different reasons, nor from the unflattering logistics that might follow. There’s a moment early in the film when it seems like the women might be reaching the end of the road, and Rei’s first thought is to look Nanae in the eyes and scream, “You could’ve at least let me fuck you first!” There’s no point in stealing a few precious days of freedom only to swallow your most urgent feelings.
“Ride or Die” avails itself to that raw kind of truth-telling even when it’s ugly, and the film is unfailingly honest even when it isn’t sure how to express itself. A subplot involving Rei’s jilted girlfriend and her lovable mother strands two of the most intriguing characters in a strange limbo that suggests — if only for a moment — that Nakamura’s manga should’ve been adapted into a TV series instead, while another thread involving a duplicitous taxi driver adds yet another layer of darkness to a movie that’s screaming for some new rays of light.
But such messiness is as much of a feature as it is a bug in a movie about two lost souls who don’t know where they’re going or why they can only get there together (the film’s understandably feeble attempts to explain the origins of Rei’s with Nanae make for some of its weakest scenes). Right at the moment when it seems like “Ride or Die” might run out of gas, someone drops by to remind us how powerful it can be when people let their most primal emotions take the wheel, and how much stories can oversimplify things when they force instincts to explain themselves like choices.
“Ride or Die” is not a goal-oriented romance — it might not be a romance at all — and that makes this long and winding road trip all the more worth sticking with to the end. Sato and Mizuhara’s abrasive chemistry only grows stronger as the film moves along (it was shot in sequence and during COVID, though you only sense the former), and the heartrending accord they reach as the sun rises on the final act pays off the various cruelties and cul-de-sacs that Hiroki drives through on the way there. The last scenes here too good to spoil for the same reason they’re too fraught and complicated to explain, but there’s something irreducibly beautiful about seeing people discover their own value even if it can only be measured in their own private currency.
“Ride or Die” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Thursday, April 15.