LA Film Fest 2013
By Don Simpson | July 15, 2013
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writer: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Tom Burke, Byron Gibson, Gordon Brown, Charlie Ruedpokanon, Sahajak Boonthanakit
One night in Bangkok the wheels of vengeance are propelled into motion when Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and brutally murders a 16-year-old prostitute. Billy is caught red-handed by the police; but opting to forgo the criminal justice system, the police enlist a retired police investigator — Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) — to serve as Billy’s judge, jury and executioner. The police obviously comprehend the power and influence of Billy’s family; arresting Billy would surely just ensure his eventual release and freedom. So, Chang brings the young victim’s father to the scene of the heinous crime, leaving him alone with the man who raped and slaughtered his daughter. The girl’s father is probably just as guilty of the girl’s murder as Billy, as he pimps out his daughters in order to support his family. The opportunity to avenge the murder of his daughter might alleviate some of the burden on his conscience, but it also saves the righteously stoic Chang from having to do the killing. Besides, Chang relishes in the futility of vengeance; he gets his kicks from perpetuating vengeful acts, watching how it slowly corrodes the soul of the avenger(s).
Upon hearing the news of his brother’s crime and punishment, Julian (Ryan Gosling) is cooly unaffected. Julian was obviously aware of Billy’s sexual perversions and probably feels as though his brother finally got what he deserved. But when Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok, she forces Julian to seek revenge for the murder of his brother. Julian agrees to fulfill his mother’s revenge fantasy for purely oedipal purposes. Crystal knows just how important masculinity and strength is to Julian, so she purposefully emasculates him, hitting him where it hurts. Julian therefore strives to grow more masculine in his mother’s eyes. This is why he hires his favorite prostitute, Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), to pretend that she is his girlfriend; but when Crystal embarrasses Julian in front of Mai, he takes out his anger on Mai rather than standing up to his deranged mother.
Of course Julian is no match for Chang, despite Chang’s relatively small frame and effeminate penchant for crooning overtly saccharine pop songs in karaoke parlors. Chang reveals a godlike invincibility during battle, effortlessly slashing at his opponents with a seemingly magical sword. Human beings are like mindless pawns to Chang. Just as Chang’s karaoke audience seems engaged in a hypnotic trance, Chang possesses an uncanny ability to predict and control anyone’s thoughts and actions. He could easily squash Julian like an ant but instead Chang chooses to further emasculate Julian in front of Crystal, as every crushing blow suffered by Julian adds to Crystal’s ever-increasing embarrassment of her only living son.
Set in a dark and seedy underworld in which the economy (and human existence) is driven by sex, drugs and brutality, writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives functions in sharp opposition to revenge fantasy flicks. Utterly devoid of plot, action and dialogue, Only God Forgives moves at the nearly imperceptible speed of a sloth on quaaludes. Like Chang, Refn treats the characters of Only God Forgives with a godlike disdain; their under-realized stories only serve as temporary distractions from the surreal world that Refn is so engrossed in developing.
Drenched in deep reds, yellows and blacks, Larry Smith’s cinematography captures the nightmarish surrealism of David Lynch, Gaspar Noé and Alejandro Jodorowsky, while allowing Thai Cinema, the Hong Kong New Wave, giallo films, Samurai films and film noir to serve as obvious reference points. The ever-present hypnotic pulse breathes unearthly life into the film. The pacing is deliberately trancelike, forcing the audience to experience this unique hyper-violent universe as if they unknowingly indulged in a bag of psilocybin mushrooms (Refn has stated that Only God Forgives is his acid film). The methodical speed — or lack thereof — differentiates the cinematic reality of Only God Forgives from our own sense of reality. It is as if an invisible pane of glass separates the audiences from the events of the film; purposefully blocking us from participating in the narrative, thus forcing us to play the role of omnipotent voyeurs, of pornographers of sex and violence.
Where Only God Forgives truly excels is in its transfixing, giallo-esque soundtrack (Cliff Martinez) and minutely crafted sound design (Kristian Eidnes Andersen, Eddie Simonsen). Heck, just to experience the ear-piercing ring of Chang’s sword is reason enough to watch Only God Forgives. The luscious soundscape pummels the audience, continuously penetrating and rattling our senses.
Whether or not Only God Forgives is enjoyable or entertaining seems entirely insignificant because Refn dishes out a cinematic experience that is totally unlike any other film I have ever seen. That alone is reason enough for me to return to the theater for a few repeat viewings…