Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives has been met with mixed reaction. The film was booed by attendees at Cannes Film Festival, has been largely derided by the Hollywood press for its unrelenting and gratuitous violence, but won Sydney Film Festival’s Official Competition.
Refn has reunited with the star of his acclaimed Drive, Ryan Gosling, and in doing so negotiates a powerful choice in protagonist to carry much of the film’s controversial material. Set in a neon-lit Bangkok Only God Forgives propels the viewers into an ultra-violent, hellish landscape fuelled by revenge and inescapable obligations of fulfilling one’s family and self-motivated duties.
Gosling plays Julian, a small-time crook running a Muay Thai boxing club in Bangkok. After his older brother Billy (Tom Burke) commits the sadistic rape and murder of a 16-year-old Thai prostitute (Billy is consequently murdered by the victim’s father), Julian is ordered by his mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge his brother’s death. It is here that we’re introduced to the film’s ostensible God-like figure Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who is an unforgiving local police chief possessing an ambiguous code of honour; Chang executes Billy’s victim’s father for allowing his daughters to prostitute themselves.
Of particular interest is Crystal; Thomas plays the part of Julian’s mother with charisma in contrast to somewhat affectless performances from others in the film. She is an overbearing, underworld matriarch whose exaggerated mannerisms and constant demand for respect qualify her as a rival, ‘false’ god to Chang’s authority. And there’s certainly an Oedipal-inflected mother-son conflict at play that underscores the film’s questioning of idealised masculinity. This is vocalised best in Crystal’s abusive tirades directed at Julian: “Billy being the older brother and having the bigger cock…how can you compete with that?”
Rejecting deeper psychological examination for a more experiential interpretation, cinematographer Larry Smith’s camerawork and shot composition echoes Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and A Clockwork Orange. Slow pans and stilted tracking shots of Bangkok’s gleaming, luxury hotels and fluorescent sex-clubs accentuate the film’s eerie, oddly dehumanised milieu. Interestingly enough Spartan dialogue permits Smith’s highly-stylised cinematography to remain at the epicenter of Only God Forgives; in essence, the film communicates through pervasive blood-red hues and tortuous scenes of bodies.
Refn’s Only God Forgives presents a world without forgiveness or redemption. Audiences should brace themselves for a disorienting experience – a cinematic experience demonstrating Refn’s idiosyncratic formal brilliance, where retribution and the futility of penitence is the sole economic currency.
BY LARRY LAI
Only God Forgives is in cinemas now.