Monday, August 05, 2013

Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives (2013, Nicolas Winding Refn)

Nicolas Winding Refn's newest film takes a narrow view of Bangkok from a John Burdett novel, adds a Lynchian layer and filters it through Drive's style. As a result, the film looks and feels like a hellish nightmare where the camera pauses long enough to allow the neon lit surroundings to seep completely into one's psyche. However, using a John Burdett framework means the films travels within a confined Karmic cycle where a red light district, prostitutes, a graphic murder, an inspector looking for killers and clash of Eastern vs Western values are expected signposts. These identifiers are still enough material to create a worthy story but the problem is this material appears to be the only template Western filmmakers use when filming Bangkok. Whenever Western filmmakers visit India, they go through a checklist of items/aspects they need to depict. Bangkok also gets a similar checklist treatment as highlighted by Kong Rithdee in the latest Cinema Scope issue:

Elephant: Yes. Eastern mysticism: Yes. Muay Thai: Yes. Monks or monk-like figures: Yes. Nocturnal Bangkok in the claws of neon light, in a lesser-Lynch lurid trance: Yes. Flummoxed foreigners lost in a labyrinth: Certainly yes. Prostitution: Naturally yes. Tawdry bars (in this case twinkling little karaoke bars): Yes. We can probably count a few more. Never mind that these “exciting” qualities (I’m avoiding the word “exotic”) are not very exciting to anyone who lives in this sticky Third World Lost Angel-is—it’s always instructive to watch ourselves being watched by visiting filmmakers, parachuting in to soak up the dripping sweat and unleash the demons in their characters.

Nicolas Winding Refn is not subtle either as the film is awash in neon and reddish colors which makes the whole city look like hell. Even a dialoge early on mentions meeting the devil. The David Lynch inspirations are sprinkled throughout not only in terms of the music but also sequences which look like a dream. And the Drive style can be found in the extended long takes plus Ryan Gosling's quiet Julian character. However, Drive is based on a solid neo-noir novel and does an excellent job in adapting the material to the screen. But Drive's style is not suited for Only God Forgives because the characters in both films hold different positions of power and come from varying financial backgrounds. The driver in Drive is trying to survive because he is at the lowest rung of power. He does not speak much and his life is defined by violent actions which taught him how to survive. Also, his choice in food and beer highlight his weak financial position. But Julian and his family are drug pushers in Only God Forgives and are in control, both financially and power, until Julian's brother gets them in trouble. Julian is not a violent person and even though his mother forces him to take that role, he always resists and is instead looking for a way to break the cycle of violence. But the internal conflict that his character goes through requires depiction of emotion and some visible signs yet Refn portrays Julian like the silent emotionless Driver.

Only God Forgives would have been a richer work had it been an extension of the Pusher films and used a similar style thereby giving a different perspective on the drug trade by featuring a cop vs pusher scenario missing from the trilogy. However, it is clear that Nicolas Winding Refn is not interested in such a scenario but is instead using Drive and Only God Forgives to depict savagery making the violence in these films an extension of Valhalla Rising in exploring how men tear other men apart. In this regard, Only God Forgives fits in with Nicolas Winding Refn's body of work but it feels like a major step down from Drive even though there is plenty to admire about the visual style and sound design.


Sam Juliano said...

"In this regard, Only God Forgives fits in with Nicolas Winding Refn's body of work but it feels like a major step down from Drive even though there is plenty to admire about the visual style and sound design."

Yeah, in the end I'd say you are dead on here Sachin. I liked it just a little bit more, but it is definitely a step down from the dizzying and visceral heights of DRIVE.

Great review!

Sachin said...

I didn't know you had seen it. I was curious to see know how you would have rated it. Good to know we are on the same wavelength more or less :)

Thanks for your words Sam.

Sam Juliano said...

Ah Sachin, the truth is I have NOT seen it. I am confusing it with Gosling's THE PINES, erroneously thinking Refn has directed it. I am losing it. Sorry about that. It came to light when I saw Jim hand in his review of GOD ONLY FORGIVES at the site. I will see it at some point, but will well note your position here.

Sachin said...

No worries Sam. Although, Gosling plays varying shades of a similar character in THE PINES & ONLY GOD FORGIVES. I hope he does not get typecast and ends up playing a similar role in most films now.

I really look forward to know what you will think of this film :)