Only God Forgives (2013)

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Dir.:Nicolas Winding Refn

This film created an uproar at Cannes.While some gave it a standing ovation it was booed by many others.Quite unevean praise for a director who won top direction award there for his film Drive previously.Only God Forgives is true to its name.Since Mr Refn is not God, he does not forgive.That is to say the violence and its sheer relentlessness is quite unforgiving.Its clearly not for everyone.

Julian(Ryan Gosling) and his brother run a boxing club in Bangkok where underage kids fight for the pleasure of adults.This is a front for a sprawling drug empire.His brother is a crazed sociopath who butchers an underage prostitute savagely and this sets in motion a chain of events that is filmed with remarkable coolness and detachment.The dialogue is reduced to the bare minimum. A Thai policeman Chan(a brilliant Vithaya Pansringarm) and his deputies wage war on Nicolas and his gang.While the moral compass of Nicholas swings wildly, his mother played by a brilliant and hyper stylized Kristin Scott Thomas has not a single God fearing bone in her body.The lines she mouths are an exquisite form of violence.

Only God Forgives is filmed in a highly stylized manner by Larry Smith who worked on Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, with a blood soaked color palette and a very cool and sinister background score.While it is fascinating to look at, the film creates a whole lot of confusion.What is the purpose of all this violence?Entertainment?Yes, that must be part of the equation for sure.But the clarity and neatness with which the film divides Nicholas and family who represent the west and the much sinned against Asians and their benefactor Chang who tries to set things right with a ruthless single-mindedness, left me in no doubt that I have seen a political film.

While I am fond of saying all cinema is political this one is overwhelmingly so and deliciously covert in its approach.Normally I resist the temptation of reading what other critics are saying but this time I could not help but comb the internet for commentary on its political agenda.I found next to nothing, which means that Mr Refn must be laughing his head off, on the way to the bank, of course.By showing a Thai cop named, Chan which means Elephant in Thai, representing God, who goes about ruthlessly punishing an American group that has a purely evil agenda in his country, the film lays out its anti-imperialist theme in the open.Quite a pity that the western press is not taking note.

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The character of Julian is the most complex.Being the son of a completely evil mother he overcomes his confusion when he physically reaches inside her mutilated body for a purpose that I will not disclose.Watch for yourself and extrapolate what he may have done next.Needless to say Freud and Oedipus will be part of the answer.The film has clear shades of Kim Ki Duk, David Lynch,Kubrick, Haneke, Tarantino and von Trier but this does not make it a copycat film.The directness of its message makes this film special.In showing the circle of justice coming a full circle by the actions of stylized humans its title mocks religion in a subtle way.

Bangkok is a city of staggering contradictions in its moral values.While it is home to some of the most exceptional monuments to the Buddha and consequently peace and harmony it is a place which is a welcoming home to vast swathes of sex and drug tourists.The place is a magnet for pedophiles and the worst perverts of the world.Similar things happen across much of Asia.Only God Forgives paints a dark picture of the exploited fighting back and finding a moral high ground.When Chan is not doling out ruthless punishment, he is singing soulful songs in Thai which are not translated.He is clearly a mythical figure which exists to set the equilibrium right in a world where the poor have no option but to sell their bodies and souls to the rich.In one scene the portrait of the Thai royal couple is also in the background looking at the madness unfold.In Bangkok the Kings portrait is everywhere and I wondered what kind of a man plasters images of himself all over a city synonymous with prostitution.

This film may end up a cult classic but it will turn off the bulk of its viewers.It would be good if its raison d’être is debated and discussed in a more exhaustive manner.



Categories: Hollywood, World Cinema

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1 reply

  1. His name is Julian, not Nicholas 😉

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