Friday, 11 December 2015

Space Oddities: Only God Forgives

It is easy to see why 'Only God Forgives' (2013), Nicolas Refn's 'Bangkok Western' film, received such mixed reviews. The film, a masterpiece for some is a disaster to others is admittedly gripping at times, although it is incredibly slow paced. Perhaps it is gripping due to the film's confusing layout, it's sometimes difficult to determine what is going. The film's scenes feel inconsistent, one moment there is a prostitute sitting on a bed, the next Julian (Ryan Gosling) is getting his arms chopped off. Perhaps this inconsistency and confusion is what makes it immersive because people desperately search for an explanation.

Fig. 1 'Only God Forgives' (2013)
The characters themselves are puzzling and inconsistent. It is difficult to feel attachment to any of them, making the film a struggle to watch at times. There is no one the viewer is really rooting for and none of them are particularly relatable or likeable. Out of all the characters Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is the possibly the most interesting which is strange considering he's violent and manipulative. It's difficult to understand his motivations which makes the viewer wonder about him.

Chang expresses his disapproval to the father of a murdered underage prostitute for letting her sell herself. He then pushes the father to execute his daughter's murderer, Billy (Tom Burke) who is Julian's older brother. Chang then chops off the father's arms because he killed Billy. This contradiction makes the viewer question why Chang does what he does, "Is he an avenger who punishes people - for seeking revenge? He could be a Zen master whose lifelong vocation is payback against payback, and whose students graduate with the loss of a limb. He could be a kind of black hole, drawing violent people in, nullifying them, cauterising them," (Bradshaw, 2013).

Julian himself is a very odd and unappealing character. It's difficult to call him either a protagonist or an anti-hero, he is simply the 'main character' of this bizarre story. He barely reacts to anything around him, he's like a plank of wood or a slab of meat that just walks from room to room or stares into space. It is unclear if he is insane or not, as he walks down neon hallways seeing both Chang and his prostitute Mia (Rhatha Phongam). While it is obvious Chang is not actually there, it is more difficult to determine if Mia is there or if she too is just in Julian's imagination.
Fig. 2 Julian in the Hallway
Either way, Julian himself seems relatively unfazed even when he imagines Chang slicing his arms off. This deadpan personality doesn't make him mysterious, it simply makes him boring. This is even more bizarre when he has a random angry outburst at Mia when she comments on how Julian's mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) talks to him. These two seconds of anger is confusing and unexpected, "The acting is equally choppy (pardon the pun). Ryan Gosling is required to show emotion in exactly two scenes, surprise in one and anger in the other, but his performance is otherwise so monotonous that his outbursts work as clunky, unwelcome and hilarious intrusions in the dream-like atmosphere of the film," (Arikan, 2013).

However, once meeting Crystal it's slightly easier to understand why Julian is a bit off, "Crystal is played by Kristin Scott Thomas, and the words 'as you've never seen her before' scarcely do the role justice: watching her in Only God Forgives is like waking up to discover your much-loved pet cat has morphed overnight into a saltwater crocodile," (Collin, 2013). While at first her bitchy attitude is understandable due to her son's death it soon becomes clear that she isn't just like this when she is 'upset'. She is so corrupt and merciless that she tries to persuade multiple people, including Julian, to murder people to avenge Billy.

Crystal is blunt and unforgiving in her dialogue, which makes her a refreshing character to watch compared to Julian, but at times it can be a bit startling. One example is when she meets Mia and criticizes her profession as a prostitute then goes on to compare Julian to Billy in a very inappropriate and vulgar manner. She is one of the more entertaining characters, as long as you don't mind very colourful language. Through Crystal's relationship with her sons the films delves into the Oedipus Complex, further explaining why Julian is such an odd character.

 It is believed that the main theme of 'Only God Forgives' is about the masculine crisis, that men fear incompetence. This is understandable considering the abuse Julian receives from his mother paired with his odd Oedipus-like relationship with her. The fear of not being good enough, although definitely not expressed by the emotions of the character is symbolised through Julian's hands/arms. He imagines Chang chopping off his hands and there are various camera shots focused on his hands/arms including a somewhat awkward scene where Crystal is seen gently touching Julian's arms. This symbolism can be easily lost especially if the viewer never heard of the film before. 

Fig. 3 Chang and Julian
While 'Only God Forgives' isn't the most celebrated film of all time, it has its strongpoints. If the viewer can get a grasp of the main theme, it makes for a deeper story. The lighting in the film is very colourful and vibrant, but even that is easily forgotten when the main focus is on relatively flat characters. It is a shame as the backstories of these characters could have easily led to very complex and fascinating personalities. Instead, the viewer is left with unrelatable characters in a neon environment with a very contradictory, explicit and awkward story unfolding at the pace of a snail. Perhaps more meaning would come of it after watching it a second time, assuming there is enough motivation to give it another try.

Arikan, A (2013) Only God Forgives At: Accessed on: 8/12/2015
Bradshaw, P. (2013) Only God Forgives - Review At: Accessed on: 8/12/2015
Collin, R. (2013) Only God Forgives, Review At: Accessed on: 8/12/2015

Illustration List:
Figure 1. Only God Forgives [Poster] At: Accessed on: 8/12/2015
 Figure 2. Julian in the Hallway [Film Still] At: Accessed on: 11/12/2015
Figure 3. Chang and Julian [Film Still] At: Accessed on 11/12/2015

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