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Saturday, 10 August 2013

Only God Forgives Analysis / Review

Only God Forgives is a Crime/thriller directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, fresh off of his success with his previous film, Drive. The film is about a Thai boxing ring manager called Julian, who is a criminal drug launderer that seeks out the killer of his criminal brother, who was killed by a Thai police Lieutenant by the name of Chang. Chang is referred to as The Angel Of Vengeance, as he dispenses justice on the brutal streets of Bangkok.

The film blends genre's in fairly interesting ways, as this film is essentially a western masquerading as a eastern neo noir crime film. It features tropes associated with westerns (silent characters, justice being brought to the lawless, ect) and has a slow, mesmerizing pace that borders on the surreal and fantastical. The director also said this about the film, "From the beginning, I had the idea of a thriller produced as a western, all in the Far East, and with a modern cowboy hero." Many people would assume that the "cowboy hero" would be Julian, but it becomes apparent over the course of the film that he was most likely subtlety referring to Chang.

The cast is lead by Ryan Gosling, who despite top billing, is actually very underplayed and the film is essentially about his redemption at the hands of Chang, the Thai police Lieutenant played by relative newcomer Vithaya Pansringarm. The films features a heavy cast of fairly unknown Asian actors, since the film is set in Bangkok. This choice of setting combined with the gives a sense of disconnection, as we are experiencing a culture we are unfamiliar with, which helps identify with the few American characters who feel the same way. It links to westerns in a way, with the trope of the stranger in a strange town. Its the films clashing of east and west which is interesting as we feel like we are watching a western fused with elements of samurai films, though the film takes more of its cues from Sergio Leonne rather than Akira Kurosawa.

The setting feels very authentic, as the film was shot on location in Bangkok. The setting feels lived in, mysterious, intimidating, exotic, atmospheric, and dangerous. The film focuses more on the seedy side of Bangkok, which paints its setting as a very grim, uncompromising reality. The sense of surreal mysticism that the neon drenched streets of Bangkok at night creates is almost dream like, and covers the screen in a hellish red and orange glow with slight variations with other bright colours, a thematic artistic choice that makes the Bangkok setting look like hell has corrupted the earth. This contrasts with other parts of the film, where the colours are more pure, and elegant, which gives of a sense of more peaceful imagery, which is also important thematically.

The reason why the colours are so thematic is because of the hidden symbolic, or possibly real nature of the films premise. Simply put, Chang is God, and he is unleashing his wrath on the hellish landscape of a seedy Bangkok, one sinner at a time. Whether or not he is God, or is a man who thinks he is god, is left ambiguous. Although Nicholas Winding Refn as said in interview that he is a man who thinks he is God, This doesn't rule out the fact that he at least symbolically represents God and is portrayed in a larger than life, powerful and highly respected light. His fellow police officers are angels, who are with him almost all the time and have huge respect for him. Whenever we see Chang at his home, the films lighting and visuals become more peaceful and pure. He home is surrounded by nature, which gives off the idea of heaven, or paradise, and that Chang (God) is residing in a place of peace and purity, while the inhabitants of the corrupt seedy Bangkok are condemned to rainy, smoggy, moody looking areas with the hellish red and orange lights bearing down.

The red and orange lights provide a fiery hellish colour scheme.

The red hellish image of Bangkok on the horizon, bordering Chang’s peaceful green paradise.

 The contrast is very strong and visually Operatic. The way the film is shot adds to its theme, with its cinematography using colour as a way of symbolically portraying a subtle hell on earth scenario, in which criminals prey on those who are not corrupted. The films use of neon lights gives the film a dreamlike quality, which helps sell the fantastical and otherworldly elements of the film.
The Chang Characters role as God is demonstrated in subtle ways which border on the supernatural. As to whether or not Change in literally God in human form is left ambiguous but it is hinted in bits of clever visual design and direction. For example Chang uses a sword to kill criminals, but when he draws the sword from his back, its as if the sword is being pulled out of nowhere, as we never see him with the sword actually on his back. He also appears to show a level of all knowing abilities, as he senses the incoming danger of a gun fight before it even occurs, and at one point demonstrates his talent for vanishing completely after turning a corner while he is being followed. Also a very important hint, is that the director directed the actor playing Chang by literally whispering into his ear "You are God".

Chang reaches for his sword.

The music is a mix of instrumental music and Karaoke songs. The Karaoke songs are very important thematically as the director said that in the region of the world where the film is set, Karaoke is considered "almost religious". Interesting thing for him for him say, especially interesting since its Change (God) who sings the Karaoke songs at a bar after he has brought a criminal to justice. In a way him singing is a symbolic way of  showing people in awe while in the attendance of God and hearing his voice reaching them. The looks on the faces of people in the Karaoke Bar while Chang is singing seems to support this, as they are mesmerized, and have a massive sense of respect for the man and hold him in very high regard.

Chang's fellow police officers act as either literal or symbolic angels on earth.

The instrumental music is brilliant in what it achieves. Because the film is basically a larger than life clash between good and evil, its appropriate that the film has music of high energy and operatic sounds. The score has both of those things, with the music being both surreal at times, sorrow filled, and pulse pounding. The films story is told primarily though visuals and music, with very sparse Dialogue, so the music at times acts as the voice of the situation, helping us paint a much larger more epic picture of what’s going on.
For example there is a fist fight in the film which is done is a very down to earth, heavy hitting way with a focus on realism. But the music makes the fight seems like a much bigger, epic feel and gives it a sense of larger than life purpose. The music in the scene is a mix of electronic music and what sounds like, and could possibly be, a electronic organ. The electronic organ sounds are very interesting as it evokes the sounds of a church organ, and links it to aggressive religious retribution. which makes sense in the context of the scene since Ryan Goslings character, Julian, is fighting Chang (God).

Also during the Karaoke scenes, Change is singing in front of  mural or painting of sorts that appears to be showing a long bridge or series of steps leading up though a cloudy sky. This image evokes heaven, and further suggests that Chang is God, singing from the heavens.

The image behind Chang shows a walkway or stairs leading through the clouds, and someone can be seen in the bottom right hand corner walking up it. The picture possibly represents heaven, with Chang prominently standing in front of it.

The film is edited is a way where we are entering and leaving reality at times. Julian has visions through out the film, where the scene will seamlessly go into what he is imagining or experiencing, with visual cues to let us know it is a vision (for example his shirt changes to a different colour in his vision, and then back to its original colour to let us know we are back in reality). The visions are directed with a quality reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick, with lots of long shots peering down hallways and creating a sense of surreal dread.
In a effort to evoke the feel of a western, many scenes have long drawn out moments before a big moment as a way of building suspense. For example the fist fight with Chang is done in the style of a stand off or dual from a western, with long shots showing the combatants opposite each other, and shots of close ups of the characters faces as they clench their fists while getting into a fighting stance. The films also uses its imagery as a way of foreshadowing later events. Early in the movie Julian is positioned in front of statue, and the statue appears to be looming over him in the background. This is a visual cue which evokes imagery of the fist fight with Chang later on in the film, in which Julian in knocked to the ground with Chang standing behind him, with his fists raised in the same position as the statue. The scene also cuts from Chang to the same statue to further imply the connection.

Foreshadowing for Chang’s fight and victory. Also the light above the statue makes it look like the statue is holding a sword, just like Chang who uses a sword.

Chang after knocking down Julian, mimicking the statue

Also present in the fight scene is some background detail which further adds to the red hellish visuals. There is a big neon dragon face watching over them, like some demon is observing the fight.

Only God Forgives is a very complex and challenging film, and its critical response is a clear sign of that. The film has polarised both critics and audiences, with people accuses it of style over substance, calling it shallow and having a lack of focus. Other critics and audience's have had the opposite reaction, and have praised the film for its ideas, pacing, and visuals. Some even call it a masterpiece. When I saw the film in the cinema the polarising effect of the film was on full display. People in the room were laughing at it out loud, cracking quotes, leaning over to their friends to trash it. 4 people walked out of the room and never came back about halfway through, just jumped ship before the film was even over.

The big problem here isn't the film, its the marketing. This film is a difficult one to sell, so the trailers basically made the film look like a action movie, with a quick pace and lots of action. But its not, its a character study, its a film about redemption in a symbolic hellish landscape. About the power of forgiving sins, but being burdened by them as a reminder to be a better person. Its story as a mystic quality, like their is something other worldly inhabiting each frame, like something is on a much larger scale than what’s being presented. Its story is told through imagery and music, rather than words or conversations. The director believes that silence is a good storytelling device in films, because it forces the viewer to engage with the film, to find what its saying on a more personal level instead of having it told to you.

Only God Forgives is fascinating, technically superb, and such a daring cinematic endeavor that its impossible to forget it. The films invites you to explore rather than tell you to, its imagery leaves room for many interpretations, and each frame is masterfully crafted with great cinematography and art direction. The film turns its premise on it head by making the audience assume Julian is the protagonist, when in reality he is the antagonist. He is a flawed man, and he has committed crimes he is not proud of, and he wants some form of retribution to save him, to change him. But he is constantly battling inner demons, his anger leads to conflict, he manipulative mother forces him to commit crimes, and he feels disconnected from his partner because he feels quilt for what he has done, and knows that what he does is wrong.

A big motif in the film is hands, and the idea that the hands committed the sin, so the hands are to be removed a way of removing the sin and forgiving the person. Julian has a vision of having blood on his hands, so he is constantly reminded of what he has done. He has trouble connecting with other people because he is ashamed of himself, and doesn't have direct connect with people unless it is an act of violence, something he feels tainted and cursed with. He is seeking a purpose, and doesn't want to just be a violent criminal, he wants to have a relationship, and he it hints he wants to be a boxer so he can fight for sport rather than for anger or in criminal activities.

His character has traits of Oedipus, his story and motivation are very similar. He fights Chang about of frustration, realising Chang is possibly God and he is angry at God because he feels he has been created to be the way he is rather than accepting that his mother is the source of his problems and is the one who manipulated him and his brother into getting into crime in the first place. After Chang beats him, and his mother asks him to kill Chang’s family, Julian realises that Change can be his chance for redemption and to be a better person. Julian realises that his mother ordered Julian’s crime partner to kill Chang’s wife and daughter along with Change, which Julian objects to. He shoots his crime partner before he ha to chance to shoot Chang’s daughter, his first big act of goodness in the film. The film ends on a somewhat happy ending in a way.

Julian offers himself to Chang so Julian can be forgiven, and Chang show shim no anger, but a subtle hint of understanding and gratitude for Julian because he stopped his daughters death. Chang then takes Julian to a peaceful forest, taking Julian out of the red Bangkok and into the pure peaceful location associated with Chang. Julian holds out his hands so he can be forgiven of his sins, and Chang cuts of his hands. The film ends with a final Karaoke song from Chang. The song is called "You're My Dream", and the lyrics somewhat symbolise Julian’s chance of a new start in life, with himself and with the girlfriend he was too ashamed of himself to be with, and can now be with now he can forgive himself.

Only God Forgives is remarkable thematically, and ends on a somewhat happy note as Julian’s character arc comes full Circle.  I loved the film and found it to be fascinating and brilliantly well made.


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  2. Please revise/edit your writing XD

    I did, however, enjoy this review/analysis. Most notably the idea that Chang represented God. As soon as you said that, everything made absolutely perfect sense. I did notice much symbolism and did not even notice the statue looming over Julien with the light appearing as the sword!

    You mention the "Oedipal" sort of traits Julien carries, but I believe they are more geared towards actual jealousy of his brother, as he was glad he died, "got what he deserved" and would no longer feel bottomed. The emptiness remained though. I did notice an eerie relationship the mother had with him as well, talking about their dongs and even saying she had a "special" relationship with Billy that in the way she said it had given me shivers of disgust.

    1. Sorry for being 5 years late to the party, but it's interesting to note that Julian's only on screen sexual interaction with the prostitute Mai is quite unique. He's tied up, as he watches her pleasure herself. I think the conversation between his mother and Mai at the dinner was just the cherry on top of an obvious total domination of Julian by his mother.

      Julian, when discovering his mom's corpse, cuts her open and reaches into her womb. Gross. But uh, symbolic???

      All that being said, I dont read any Oedipus vibes from this, my recollection is that Oedipus, at the very end, was content. Give or take a few eyeballs. Oedipus and Jacosta live happily ever after, whereas Julian needs complete separation from his mother, his guilt, and a pair of fists to complete his character arch.

      But yeah, Billy's dick was massive, I hear. Although that shot of him dead in his underwear really didn't give proof to that testimony.

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