In the age of widely accessible and completely anonymous Internet herd mentality-fueled hatred it is inexplicably easy and all the more enticing to jump on the wagon and bash a film, regardless of it being actually terrible. After all, and I speak from a position of experience, being able to point out negatives comes to most of us much easier, than making the effort to give positive remarks about anything; it’s just how things go nowadays. Long gone are the times when we used to listen to our mothers and grandmothers say something to the effect of ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, better keep your pie-hole shut’. Now that we don’t have to face anybody directly, we can spout hatred and bigotry all day long hidden safely behind our avatars from the comforts of our own homes.
If that makes any difference, I try to do everything in my power to remain objective in the way I perceive things, or cinema in this case. I’ll still say what I need to say about any given film whilst trying not to be influenced by anybody’s opinion on the matter. So, I have no problem going after duds like “Iron Man 3”, or “Die Hard 5” (I can’t stress enough how deeply disappointed I was with those two pitiful additions to the collective treasury of moving pictures) so long as I stay true to what I believe. However, I find it most difficult to hop on a hate train (“After Earth” much?), as I think it’s the equivalent of taking the easy way. Sure, I might dislike a film that has been getting shafted left and right by the critics and movie-goers alike, but I’ll never sink to the level of hating a film, because it’s the prevailing opinion about it.
Now, I’ve been hearing/reading/watching all sorts of opinions about “Only God Forgives” by Nicolas Winding Refn. Since the beginning of this year, the collective media were buzzing with excitement about Refn’s newest baby and the critical acclaim together with commercial success of his previous work – “Drive” – could only ramp up the expectations. And the, Cannes Festival came along and the hate train left the station. “Only God Forgives” ended up splitting the critical world exactly in half with some people loving and praising it, and others pulling all the stops in expressing their disappointment. I think it’s perfectly valid to find oneself on either side of the argument, but I reckon we might be having a hate-club situation on our hands here (for the reasons I mentioned earlier). So, whenever a film that divisive rolls around, I find it imperative to go and watch it, so that I could have my own opinion.
“Only God Forgives” is a story about Julian (Ryan Gosling), a small-time criminal living in Bangkok, who, together with his older brother Billy (Tom Burke) runs a boxing club as a cover for a drug-dealing outfit. One day, however, Billy goes on a ‘night out’ and ends up raping brutally murdering a teenage prostitute. After Billy has surrendered to the police, a police lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) arrives on the scene together with the victim’s father and allows him to exact vengeance on his child’s murderer. However, when all is said and done, Chang decides to punish the girl’s father as well for letting his own child prostitute herself in the first place and he hacks off his arm with a sword.
Learning of her son’s demise, Julian and Billy’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok with a sole reason of finding out whoever was responsible and once she does, she tasks her only remaining son to find and kill Chang for what he’s done. Thus, the circle of vengeance starts spinning…
A lot can be said about “Only God Forgives”; about its ponderous tone, gruesome imagery, neon-lit sceneries, dialogue or lack thereof, and convoluted immoral take on human nature, but you can’t really tell me that it’s a bad film. I personally loved it, but I think I need to emphasize I wouldn’t want to watch it again anytime soon.
It is my understanding that the vast majority of the concerns voiced in connection to “Only God Forgives” are somehow related to the film’s glacially paced story and pretentious self-indulgent tone that stretches out the film’s 90 minute run time into infinity. Well, as for the latter, I can’t really relate, as I didn’t feel bored by “Only God Forgives” at all; I was definitely more mesmerized instead with the hypnotic, at times bordering on surreal visuals Refn kept throwing at me. Although drawing parallels to David Lynch’s work in order to describe Refn’s newest film would definitely be overkill bordering on sacrilege, I feel “Only God Forgives” (if one wants to get as much from that film as humanly possible) should not be approached as regular film with a regular story. In that, expecting a follow-up to “Drive” will only get you annoyed, because stylistically they are miles apart. You might get a sense of noir climate going on (judging solely by the trailer), but in reality it just ends up being very misleading, as “Only God Forgives”, apart from the fact Ryan Gosling is in it, has nothing to do with “Drive”, be it in terms of story, style, or tone.
Once you can get over the fact you are not going to see “Drive 2 – Bangkok by night”, you’ll notice immediately the most stunning feature of “Only God Forgives”, the photography. I was truly amazed how perfectly composed and lit every single frame of this film was. There was literally no item, no flower, and no person out of place in this film. However, the fact everything about “Only God Forgives” is so meticulously staged helps to take away the sense of realism from the film. I don’t see it as a negative, but I can surely understand where the alleged pretentiousness comes from that put so many people off. Because nothing in the film happens spontaneously and/or rapidly, the overall feeling I got, was that of a stage play, where the actors would over-articulate, walk slowly and go overboard on the acting.
And the violence… “Only God Forgives” is a surreal fairy tale filled with visions, very long sequences savoring the tone and the visuals, and it’s all precisely punctuated by spikes of gore and violence. Whenever lieutenant Chang shows up on the screen and draws his sword (or materializes it from nothingness, because he doesn’t seem to be carrying it, yet when he’s about to punish somebody, he just draws it casually from behind his back) we are quickly taught that what we are about to witness is aimed at disturbing us.
But, it is not the blood, guts, torture and dismemberment that leaves a bad aftertaste in this film… It’s the characters and their decisions showing the filthiest side of human nature made me flinch, because what some of them do (or used to do) is simply wrong on every level. Taking into account Julian’s relationship with his mother, his reason to have fled America, the mother’s bend on retribution and disregard towards pretty much anyone, I think I have been misled all throughout the film. The more you are drawn into the dark and filthy underworld, in which the characters dwell, the more you understand lieutenant Chang’s actions to the point of believing, he is the true main character of the story; but that’s just my conjecture.
All things considered, “Only God Forgives” is a special film that requires a lot of investment from the viewer. I reckon that stunning photography and the perfectly matching dark and ominous soundtrack could not be enough to satisfy an unsuspecting audience member, especially when the usual points of interest in a film are glossed over or contorted into very unfamiliar shapes. You can’t really say much about the acting, because everything in this film is staged akin to performance art, plus there’s more or less five minutes worth of dialogue to complement. You shouldn’t really expect much from the story either, because all the usual features of a film in here are but elements to elevate the style and tone. “Only God Forgives” is a piece of film that simply flows and takes you along on a journey to places you really don’t want to visit.