Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Tom Burke
Julian (Gosling) runs a boxing club in Bangkok along with his brother Billy (Burke). The club itself is actually a front for an incredibly wealthy and powerful drug ring that runs throughout the seedy underbelly of the city. When Billy rapes and brutally murders a 16 year old girl, he meets the brutal justice of feared law enforcer and karaoke enthusiast Chang (Pansringarm). Furious at the death of her first born, fierce matriarch Crystal (Scott Thomas)arrives in Bangkok and demands that Julian avenge his brother.
The problem that always persists with Arthouse cinema is that those who would call themselves fans of the more avant-garde wing of cinema are very often labelled as pretentious, smug and oft to look down their noses at the general cinema-going public. The average Joe could sit there and be left completely cold by the work of directors such as Haneke and Malick and be met with scorn and derision for their opinion from the Arthouse fan, declaring that the reason why the average Joe didn’t like it is simply because he/she didn’t ‘get it’. ‘Getting it’ is clearly some imaginary all exclusive club where these pretentious beret-wearing, wine-drinking wankers hang out and talk in condescending tones about the subtexts of subtexts and you’re not invited as clearly you’re just not ‘smart enough’ or clued up on your cinematic knowledge.
As a result, the minute you lift your hand up to say you liked something that could be classed as ‘Arthouse’, you get lumped in with this group of self-satisfied berks and people will lambast you for liking it because of its more ‘arty’ aspirations.
‘Only God Forgives’ is one such film, lapped up by so called ‘snobby critics’ and the Arthouse Elite and met with complete indifference and often total disdain from the general public. Indeed, in the wonderfully intimate and perfect matching lighting scheme with the film’s palette screen in which I saw the film, the universal opinion of ‘pretentious crap’ was embodied in all the sighs and rolling eyes and swift feet to the exit come the karaoke climax. As for me personally, this is probably my film of the year thus far!
Before the finger pointing and cat calls of ‘snob’ get aimed in my direction, let me just say that I can very clearly see all the problems that others would have with it. As a matter of fact, you could probably read this review and substitute all the reasons I think the film is great for the same reasons why most have found it so repellent. As the saying goes though, one man’s toxic waste is another man’s potpourri, so here’s my opinion:
As soon as the film was screened before the zoo that calls itself the Cannes film festival, the detractors went for Ryan Gosling’s mere 16 lines throughout the whole film (by my count it was 19) with such vigour that remains possibly one of the more pathetically nit-picking gripes I’ve ever heard made about a film. After Gosling’s limited vocabulary in ‘Drive’ many might be forgiven for wondering if Refn doesn’t trust Gosling to actually deliver dialogue, however, most seem to be overlooking the fact that Gosling has a rare gift of seeming to be able to say a hundred words with mere facial expressions.
People forget that in the early days of cinema, actors had to convey everything through facial and body language which in this day and age of actors who never seem to shut up like Adam Sandler but end up saying nothing, Gosling is a breath of fresh air. Just by the merest flicker of his eyes, Gosling is able to convey quickly stepping from remorse to rage and especially in this film his body language of attempting to put on a firm front but then being broken down by his domineering mother takes nothing short of fantastic acting skills. You simply do not notice his lack of dialogue, it is a non-issue and frankly if he’d said nothing his performance would still have been exceptional. For those bemoaning ‘Drive’s lack of real female presence (aside from the brilliant Carey Mulligan), here Refn presents Crystal, the platinum blonde with a ruthless, remorseless streak and is played by Kristin Scott Thomas as you will never have seen her before.
In a very Tarantino-like flourish, Refn’s choice of picking an actress who’d never done roles such as this before was a masterstroke, in that some of the jaw-droppingly offensive lines of dialogue are made that much more shocking by the fact that they’re being delivered by a British classical actress. The immense power she has over Gosling’s Julian is terrifying and whilst she shatters the possible implication of incest with some rather obvious lines, again Thomas’ complete reversal of her usual roles makes the moment ten times more shocking than if it was performed by an actress who had previous fierce matriarch experience. The surprise draw is in Vithaya Pansringarm’s Chang, quite possibly one of the most unassuming intimidating characters ever seen on screen. Wearing almost priest-like clothes, Chang is responsible for dishing out some rather extreme violence with his sword whilst the rest of the police stand back and watch.
The most painful scene to watch involves a rather novel use of hair chopsticks and the most terrifying thing about Chang is the brutally calm and methodical ways in which he either straight up murders or brutalises to within an inch of his victim’s lives. Chang too is given more depth than just a brutal angel of death, he has a child who he has to protect, is seen to keep some sort of hinted at religious ritual and most notably of all enjoys the odd round of karaoke. The use of karaoke songs, usually done before or just after Chang’s acts of extreme violence are spine-tinglingly effective in serving as deftly offsetting the mood, leaving you unsure if you should laugh or be crippled in fear. Much like the whole mood of the film, all elements are taken to their most extremes to the point at which your opinion could only be that you see it as a brutally dark fairytale or laughable overly-stylised nonsense.
One of the key areas that will make or break your enjoyment of the film is whether or not you accept both its fairytale angle and also the rather tremendous amount of symbolism. Ah symbolism, the cinematic element that many love to pour over and debate whereas others roll their eyes and yell at the film to get to the bloody point. Much like the fantastic ‘Stoker’ earlier in the year, ‘OGF’ would never win awards for subtly in its symbolism but that doesn’t make it any the less engaging and still adds an extra dimension of unsettlingly ‘weird’. Probably the main example would be Julian’s obsession with his arms, constantly visualising them being cut off or staring at them with the faint expression of fear and remorse. It would not take a film scholar to figure out where Refn is going with this but it remains a fantastic and vital part of Gosling’s character that is movingly poignant when the truth behind his obsession is revealed.
The use of colour and equally deepest, darkest shadows is also of profound importance in the film. The film begins bathed in blood red, highlighting the carnal and dangerous desires and brutal attacks that the audience will see shortly. The lighting is easily seen to be used to reflect the mood of the film at that current point, such as a dramatic switch to a cold blue when everything seems to be going wrong for Julian and his mother, the constant switching from the dream-like neon surroundings of Bangkok to the harsh stark light of the ‘real world’ is another aspect that makes you feel the onscreen violence and drama with that much more intensity.
The long tracking shots down a cavernous red hall with dragon patterned walls has numerous doors with nothing but impenetrable darkness inside them, and as Gosling is seen to walk down it and see things that clearly aren’t there, it remains a mystery as to if the corridor actually represents the inner-labyrinth of Julian’s deeply troubled mind. The fluid camera movements and Refn’s refusal to look away for a second from the acts of extreme violence whilst bathed in mood lighting augments both the fairytale aspect as well as creating a strange meditative state in the viewer. Almost like a lucid dream, at times watching the film you felt so much a part of what was going on, that the screen vanished and you felt as if you were looking directly through a hole into real life. Any film that is capable of making you completely forget you are stuck in an over-priced cinema is truly something to be savoured.
Amongst the most surprising elements of ‘Drive’ was the bombastic 80s tinged synth soundtrack as composed by the fantastic Cliff Martinez who hits a double whammy of brilliant film scores this year with the trippy ‘Spring Breakers’. The fact that Martinez’s music always seems to fit the film like a glove means that it is simply impossible to imagine the films without it, almost becoming an extra character with a huge influence of the mood and direction of the film. The oriental rhythmic drumming builds up in a great crescendo as tension is ramped up whilst the almost J-pop-like synths add both an eerie bounciness and further emphasise the story’s feel of a twisted fairytale.
Many will see ‘OGF’ as a misstep for Refn. ‘Drive’ genuinely took people by surprise, it was recognised as the ‘coolest’ film of the year and spawned a dramatic rise in the sale of racing jackets. Whilst ‘Drive’ had its quirks, none came close to the head-trip of ‘OGF’ and whilst the old ultra-violence is still present, the symbolism, restrained pacing and more emphasis on mood rather than plot will already lose all the fans Refn gained and his ‘cool’ status thrown into question. Personally, ‘OGF’ and ‘Drive’ are my idea of a double bill made in heaven. The haunting visuals, atmospheric lighting, top-notch acting, awesome score and idea that they are both adult fairytales ensure that these are both films I will cite as being two of my all time favourites and ones I will watch time and time again. I cannot wait to see what Refn has up his sleeve next!
PS. My not insignificant man-crush on Ryan Gosling has absolutely NOTHING to do with my love of these films…NOTHING…but he has such dreamy eyes, doesn’t he?
Verdict: Refn delivers yet another masterpiece of ultra-violent neon-tinged beauty.