ONLY GOD FORGIVES. Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Tom Burke, Bryon Gibson, Kovit Wattanakul. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Rated MA15+. Restricted. 89 min.
This multi-national, thriller film won the award for best movie at the recent (2013) Sydney Film Festival. Its compelling title suggests a spiritual or religious theme, but it is a very different kind of movie to what its title implies. There is not a lot of dialogue in it, and it is partially sub-titled.
Julian Thompson (Ryan Gosling) is an US expatriate living in Bangkok, Thailand, and he runs a boxing club that is a front for a drug smuggling operation. Julian’s brother, Billy (Tom Burke), murders an underage prostitute brutally. In control of the Police (with a title that no one dares name) is Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), known to everybody as the “Angel of Death”. Chang sadistically roams the streets of Bangkok with his lethal sword, using it as an instrument of immediate justice. He acts as both judge and executioner. Chang informs the girl’s father, Choi Yan Lee (Kovit Wattanakul), about his daughter’s murder and shows her body to him, and permits Choi to beat Billy to death. Chang then cuts off the father’s arm for allowing his daughter to be a prostitute, wielding his sword “for the sake of your living daughters”.
In the meantime, Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is the overlord of the drug ring, arrives in Bangkok to identity Billy’s corpse and orders Julian to kill the men who were responsible for his brother’s death. Twice he refuses, and Crystal is enraged by his disloyalty. To complicate the plot, her past relationship with Julian and his dead brother was an incestuous one, and Crystal taunts Julian with Billy’s sexual prowess.
Crystal’s presence starts a cycle of violence, which illustrates the themes of revenge and retribution. Choi is murdered by one of the fighters at Julian’s club. Julian confronts Chang about his part in Billy’s death, and challenges Chang to a boxing fight which he loses badly. Elsewhere, Crystal arranges for a man called Byron (Byron Gibson) to assassinate Chang. Chang finds and tortures Byron horribly. Again, Crystal asks Julian to kill Chang and tells him that Chang now knows she ordered the hit. On her third request, Julian agrees to her wish. Chang finds Crystal and slits her throat, and Julian is ultimately responsible for killing Chang’s wife, but spares his child. Julian returns from Chang’s house to find his mother’s corpse. In the film there are also scenes of masturbation and incestuous desire. The film ends with Julian standing in a field as he offers himself in retribution to Chang, who severs both of Julian’s hands with his sword to yield justice. The film ends with Chang singing karaoke in his favourite bar, watched quietly by his fellow-police officers.
This film is full of violence. Such is the degree of violence that the title of the film confronts the viewer all the time with the conclusion that “only God” can forgive what is happening. It seems to argue that no one other than God can forgive such ultra-violence, and the film provokes the viewer by raising the question whether a good God could ever possibly have allowed such awful things to take place.
Refn brought us “Drive” (2011) and, as in that movie, Ryan Gosling and most of the other characters have little to say. If this film has a God figure in it, it is the (almost) wordless, charismatic Chang, and the film communicates a vastly different understanding of God from any Christian point of view. Refn presents the God of this film as a long way from a forgiving God. This is a cold-hearted film whose content is immoral and appalling, and the movie is directed intentionally to arouse fear.
Having said all that, this film is also highly charged cinema. The photography and lighting are astounding, and its scenes are full of heavily patterned, dark images of great force. It is directed powerfully, evocatively, and hypnotically. The film’s stark imagery is accompanied boldly by throbbing music. We are never in doubt for a moment that the streets of Bangkok are paved with sin and terrible corruption.
This is a brutal film that horrifies in its content. But, characteristic of Refn, it is also a movie where style triumphs over substance. The film confronts the viewer all the time by suggesting provocatively that, to some, God is an incredibly harsh deity who meters out justice very unmercifully.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out 18 July 2013.