This Art House Crime/thriller directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, — fresh off of his success with his previous film, Drive — is about a Thai boxing ring boss called Julian, who is a criminal drug launderer that seeks out the killer of his unlawful brother, who was killed by a Thai police Lieutenant by the name of Chang. Chang is referred to as “The Angel of Vengeance”, as he dispenses justice on the vicious streets of Bangkok.
The film mixes genre’s in moderately interesting ways, as this story is fundamentally a western cloaked as an eastern neo noir crime film. It features tropes connected with westerns (hushed characters, justice being brought to the ungovernable, etc.) and has a dawdling, compelling pace that borders on the dreamlike and fantastical. Many people would assume that the “cowboy hero” would be Julian, but it becomes evident (after watching it twice mind you) over the course of the film that he was most subtlety referring to Chang. The cast is escorted by Ryan Gosling, who despite being at the top of the Hollywood food chain, is actually very underplayed and the film is essentially about his redemption at the hands of Chang, the Thai police Lieutenant played by relative newcomer Vithaya Pansringarm.
The film features a heavy cast of fairly unknown Asian actors, since the film is of course set in Bangkok. This choice of setting combined with this gives a sense of detachment, as we are experiencing a culture we are unfamiliar with here in Western Society, which helps a Westerner like myself identify mainly with the few American characters who feel the same way. This was the first big sense I received from this film; the way in which I felt disconnected from it and struggled to stay with it — hence the dreamlike state it puts the viewer in. It links to Westerns in a way, with the trope of the stranger in a strange town. It’s the films clashing of east and west which is interesting as we feel like we are watching a western fused with elements of samurai films.
The reason why the colours are so thematic (they are brilliant and impeccable in this film) is because of the hidden symbolic or possibly real nature of the films premise: Simply put, Chang is God, and he is unleashing his fury on the hellish backdrop of a squalid Bangkok, one sinner and threat at a time. Whether or not he is God, or is a man who thinks he is god, is left uncertain. Chang, whether you would disagree or not at least symbolically embodies the notion of God and is portrayed in a larger than life, powerful and highly esteemed light; his fellow police officers are like angels, who are with him almost all the time and have huge respect for him.
Only God Forgives has a very complex matrix of symbolism, colours, rituals and characters to which makes it a challenging film for sure, and its critical response is a clear sign of that in my opinion. The film has seemed to polarize both critics and audiences, with people accuses it of style over indulgence into violence, calling it superficial and having a lack of center. Other critics and audiences have had the opposite reaction, and have praised the film for its thoughts and commentary, pacing, and visuals. Some even call it a masterpiece. I wouldn’t say it is a master piece (I may have to watch it again down the road sometime to see if this changes) however, this film at the very least is special. It’s different and refreshing from most of the garbage out there. It is defiantly a film that needs to be thought about and watched a few times to digest all that is happening and to say that the film should be swept under the rug and never seen again is misguided and would be a true shame.
The big problem here isn’t the film, it was most likely the marketing. This film was a difficult one to sell (anything that doesn’t appeal to the mainstream always is), so the trailers basically made the film look like an action movie, with a quick pace and lots of intense violence. However it’s not, it’s a character study. It’s a film about redemption in a symbolic hellish landscape; it’s about the power of forgiving sins, but being weighed down by them as a prompt to be a better person. Its story has a mystic quality, like there is something other worldly inhabiting each frame, like something is on a much larger scale than what’s being presented. Its story is told through imagery and music, rather than words or conversations.
Only God Forgives is intriguing, technically superior, and is such a daring cinematic endeavor that it’s impossible to forget it after viewing. The film invites you to explore rather than spoon feed you like a three year old, its imagery leaves room for many interpretations, and each frame is masterfully crafted with great cinematography and art direction. The film turns its principle on it head by making its audiences assume Julian is the hero, when in reality he is the antagonist.
He is a deeply flawed man with many issues regarding inferiority that are a result from his mother and jealously towards his older brother, and he has committed crimes he is not proud of, and he wants some form of retribution to save him, to change him. However, he is continually battling inner demons, his rage leads to conflict, his controlling mother forces him to commit multiple criminal atrocities, and he feels disconnected from his partner because he feels guilt for what he has done, and knows that what he does is wrong.
The director believes that silence is a good storytelling device in films( as we have come to know from him), because it forces the viewer to engage with the film, to find what its saying on a more personal level instead of having it told to you.
It’s not a film for a lazy viewer is what I am trying to say (Recommended- watch it at least twice before you make up your mind)