Friday, 18 December 2015

Film Review: Only God Forgives

Fig 1: Film Poster of Only God Forgives

The 2013 film by the director of the film "Drive", Nicolas Winding Refn endeavour in the struggles of masculinity in a hostile environment of the drug scene in Bangkok.  Julian, a manager at a Bangkok fighting club to disguise his true career of drug smuggling, with his brother, Billy. Billy is brutally killed as punishment for the rape and murder of a young teenage prostitute by the hands of her father, ordered to by a cop who thrives on vengeance and justice. The ordeal starts off a string of events all for revenge as soon as Julien's mother, Crystal, and head of the operation arrives. The relationship of mother and son as well as the problems of masculinity and male aggression is explored through heavily gruesome scenes of violence and sexual themes. "Saying that Only God Forgives is violent is like saying that Hell is hot."(Jonathan Robbins, Film Comment, Blogspot)
Fig 2: Shot of Julian 
Starting in the fight club the two brothers own, Julian's older brother, Billy walks out into the street in a soured mood, smashing up strip clubs and raping and murder a teenaged prostitute. He is murdered for his actions by the girl's mourning father, who was forced to do the act by the police chef Chang.
After lamenting over his brother's death by going to a prostitute den, Julian and the rest of his gang go to find his brothers murderer, the man missing a forearm due to Chang cutting it off as punishment for allowing his daughter to sell herself for money. After listening to the man's story as to why he did what he did, Julian lets him go.
While this is happening, after finding out about her son's death,  the kingpin of the drugs operation and mother to the two men, Crystal arrives. She is disgusted when she hears that Julian let the murderer of her dead son go. She arranges a dinner with her last remaining son, scornful over the fact that it was Billy who died and not Julian, who brings along the prostitute Mai as his girlfriend. His mother sees though the ploy, berating her now only son with how inferior he is that he'd stoop so low. Julian seems to take all of the sour and hateful comments from his mother on the chin, but as they leave he turns on Mai making her stripe out of her dress outside in an alleyway. The matriarch then sends one of the members of the fight club as a hitman on the man who killed Billy. The police arrive at the fight club later on to enquire about the murder, Julian isn't seen as the culprit but he recognises Chang.
After the reveal that the police captain was involved, Crystal sets up a hit on him and his men. Following this, three bikers storm a cafe, when the police are having a meal, with guns ablaze. Chang survives the onslaught and starts to chase one of the men who abandons his bike, after shooting the other two dead. He hits the man across the head with a frying pan full of hot oil, and makes the man lead him to their leader, who is feeding his young disabled son. Chang kills the hitman as so that the boy isn't without a father, while getting a lead on a man close the Crystal, Bryon. They then go to a club where Bryon is said to be located, upon finding him Chang goes about slowly torturing him about the location of his boss in the most gruesome scene in the film.
Julian gets into contact with Chang, after watching him sing on stage, and asks him to come to the fight club for a match. The dramatic build up is for nothing as Chang is able to knock the man down, receiving barely any damage to himself. After the police chief leaves, Crystal comes up to the beaten Julian telling him that Chang knows that it was her who ordered the hit and that she wants her remaining son to go to his home to murder both him and his family, promising that the two of them will go back to America together as a family after this is all over.
As Julian and the hired hitman Charlie, arrive on seen at Chang's house and successful kill the family's nanny. Julian cant go through with killing the chief's daughter, shooting Charlie as he's about to pull the trigger. Meanwhile Chang goes to Crystal's hotel room. She blames Julian for everything that happened in the film, saying that he is deranged and not worth anyones time. Chang then slashes her throat, leaving her to bleed out against the window. Julian arrives to the scene, cutting into his mothers stomach and slowly inserts his hand in the incision. He is then left in a delusional state, ending up in a field with Chang and his group of officers who watch and the blade comes down on the disturbed young man.
The film ends with Chang, back in the club the police frequent, singing as the credits roll by.

Fig 3: Shot of Chang singing in a bar the police frequent

While it is a short film at only 90 minutes long, Only God Forgives, is able to show the struggles of being in the crime life, and off masculinity and how that life effects what being a man is. Through the nearly mute protagonist played by Ryan Gosling, who was also in Refn's other film Drive, who only had around 17 lines throughout. Most of his and Chang's actions are through their actions, resulting in gruesome and violent scenes that dominate the film.  The violence the two create are described repellent and seemingly violent just for the sake of it, resulting in gruelling and gruesome set pieces, balancing out the brutality through the set design (Jesse Cataldo, Slant Magazine)
Julian's mother, Crystal is probably one of the most interesting yet disgusting character in the movie, she implies incestual relations with her sons, commenting on how Billy was more endowed then Julian, and while she could just be talking about Billy's more leadership behaviour the fact that she words if in such a way makes it unnerving. However she is the only means to get context as to what Julian is as a character, and the fact that she's in charge of all these men results in her being an empowering feminine figurehead in this world of men. She is the only female in the film who isn't used as a sex object but instead she is a seductive maternal character in power up against the righteous law enforcer Chang, the "villain" of the film.

The film's set design is full of colour and details, embracing the Thai city surroundings, scenes in market places and of Chang's house are full of detail that makes it so that even if the film is making the viewer bored the backgrounds will keep them invested. As Damon Wise puts it, "Courtesy of cinematographer Larry Smith, who makes the neon sleaze of Bangkok both dangerous and beautiful, everything is bathed in disorientating primary colours,"
Examples of what a great job the cinematographer Larry Smith did, the insides of fancy night-clubs and strip clubs are illuminated by bright neon glows, the unrealistic lighting is realistic for the place but can also connote to how Julian isn't all there mentally after his brother's murder. Some colours feature prominently with some of the characters, Julian cover is a red fight club while Chang is usually shown in blues, like the bar where he sings, to the greens of nature like at the end of the film. Crystal's apartment is monochrome, make her death and blood stand out more against the white surroundings.

Overall Refn seems too have made this film with the point of it being, the struggles of masculinity, violence, and over saturated colours in the backgrounds, with multiple still shots just to show off these aspects.


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Jonathan Robbins:

Damon Wise:

Jesse Cataldo: "The Violence is repellent and presented seemingly for its own sake, resulting in grueling, gruesome set pieces, sadistically couching its brutality within a high-style pictorialism that's both hard to watch and difficult to look away from."-

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