Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, France/Thailand/USA/Sweden, 2013)

I have been meaning to blog about all manner of films. Only Only God Forgives has made me feel compelled to do so of recent movies.

The film tells the story of Julian (Ryan Gosling), a muay thai trainer in Bangkok whose brother, Billy (Tom Burke), rapes and kills a 16-year old prostitute at the film’s outset.

A policeman, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), tells the father of the victim that he can enact revenge on Billy – which he promptly does, smashing in his skull with a wooden baton that looks like a bed leg.

Chang is disappointed by this revenge murder, though, and so removes one of the father’s arms with a short sword that he improbably carries around – invisibly – on his back.

Julian finds the father and is about to kill him – but does not, because he discovers Billy’s crime. Julian thus understands the father’s revenge to be justified.

However, Billy and Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives from the USA and pays for the father of the murdered prostitute to be killed. What is more, since Chang was complicit in Billy’s murder, she also pays for an attempt on Chang’s life.

We’re getting into spoiler territory here, so be warned. But Chang survives the hit, kills Crystal’s accomplice, Gordon (Gordon Brown), has a fight with Julian, which he wins easily, kills Crystal, and then, at the film’s climax, either chops off Julian’s hands, which are outstretched or, as director Nicolas Winding Refn implied during the Q&A after the screening I attended at Brixton’s beautiful Ritzy cinema, beheads him. We do not in fact see – since the screen turns black to the sound of sword slicing through skin and bone, and the credits begin to roll. But it is not necessarily important.

What the above synopsis – replete with spoilers – will not convey is what the film is like.

Fans of Refn, in particular Drive (USA, 2011) and perhaps also Bronson (UK, 2008), will perhaps anticipate the slow tracking shots, the close ups of brooding individuals, especially Julian/Gosling, and various other things.

But what is important about this film is its play of light and darkness. Often, most of the screen is dark – such that we have what seem to be black holes in the frame. And yet things disappear into and emerge from these black holes, in particular images of Chang with his sword. These images do not seem to be narratively determined; otherwise Chang would be turning up in impossible places the whole time. Instead, they seem to be Julian’s imagination – or perhaps his sense that he will come face to face with Chang. Images, then, of his destiny. And since the future is otherwise invisible to us, it is perhaps visually appropriate that Refn would show these ‘future images’ as black holes, with Chang in a black suit emerging from them.

But the film is also about black holes in other senses. A black hole is the limit of the visible: no light can escape from it, and so we cannot technically see it. However, we can tell that it is there because of the effects that a black hole has on what surrounds it.

Being invisible, then, the black holes that are visually rendered as darkness on the screen are matched by the film’s interest in violence and sex. For, the urge to be violent and the urge to copulate – these are both black holes in the human, traces of our animality that the light cast through enlightenment is supposed to have removed from us. And yet they remain. And we can feel the effects of these urges in our behaviour.

Human insides are also invisible – and yet Refn glories in showing us humans split open, brains bashed out, necks rent asunder by Chang’s vengeful sword. In other words, Refn suggests that cinema can penetrate into the dark recesses of the human, and perhaps of the universe itself: we do not so much understand cinema now as light (photo-graphy = writing with light), but also as darkness. Cinema always shows us darkness as much as light – but we must open our eyes (or close them?) to see it.

(Refn’s film is, in spite of its violence, oddly chaste. We do see Julian eviscerate and then stick his hands into his mother’s corpse – his relationship with Crystal oozing with some weird sexual tension – dark desires again surfacing – but there is no actual sex. The closest that Julian comes to sex is imagining (or perhaps actually) seeing his pseudo-girlfriend and seeming prostitute Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) masturbate in front of him while he is tied – fully clothed – to a chair, and perhaps fingering her while she stands in the corner of a karaoke room (and this experience immediately leads to Julian beating up some locals). Not violence, but sex – as ever – remains the real black hole that cinema, at least commercial cinema, refuses to show.)

Refn’s film deliberately sets out to challenge the limits of the visible: this is made most clear when Chang tortures and kills Gordon, first slicing open his eyes – shades of Un chien andalou (Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, France, 1929), before then shoving a knife in his ear – because he will not listen, nor see, what is going on around him.

Here the film takes on a political aspect. For it is hard not to read Chang’s relentless revenge as that of the Third World on the First World. The Third World is also a black hole of sorts: it is invisible to Westerners, even those who tour there, and yet its effects can be felt everywhere, in particular (let’s go a bit Marxist) because the vast majority – if not all – First World wealth has been founded historically on the systematic and relentless exploitation of those parts of the world the veins of which the First World has opened up and bled dry (to borrow Eduardo Galeano‘s metaphor). That is, not just contemporary sweatshops, but the Third World as a whole is unrepresented and unrepresentable. Westerners do not see it, but all Western comfort, luxury and wealth is predicated upon it; they are its effects. And so that Chang emerges from that black hole and kills all those Westerners who come to Thailand to rape (or watch masturbating) their women and to sell drugs (the money-making trade of Crystal, Julian and Billy) seems almost entirely logical.

Since Chang and Julian both continue to appear in shots the reality-status of which is unclear to the viewer, it becomes hard to tell who is imagining the shots that we see. Is this Julian imagining Chang? Or Chang imagining Julian?

The answer is in fact unimportant in some respects; for, what our inability to tell ultimately suggests is the interconnected, entwined or entangled nature of Julian and Chang. The Third World is not some playground over there, to which Westerners can retire and visit to fuck ladyboys. The First World continues to be in and with the same world as the Third World. That is, the inability for us to tell whether we are seeing Chang or Julian’s thoughts suggests to us not many different worlds, but one world.

If Chang is certainly an exterminating angel, Refn went so far in the Q&A to describe him as God. This is made loosely clear during his fight with Julian; it is not that Julian never even comes close to hitting Chang (nor that Chang magically makes his sword appear, even though he is obviously not carrying it on his person). Rather, it is that Chang and a statue of a fighter are crosscut in such a manner to suggest a parallel between them.

That said, Julian also figures in a similar pose to the statue. So we now have two possible ways to read the film (or at least I am going to explore two now). Firstly, we might say that Julian aspires to be God. We get a sense of this as a result of his having killed his father – as Crystal says to Chang just prior to her death. In this sense, Julian might be guilty – according to Christian mythology – of some sort of unforgiveable sin – and in this sense God does not forgive him, even though potentially he could do.

Secondly, however – and my preferred reading – it could be that Julian does not aspire to be God, but to godliness. Julian forgives the man who killed Billy (Crystal alleges that this is for reasons of jealousy – Billy always had a bigger cock than Julian). Julian also saves Chang’s daughter from death by killing one of his Thai partners, Daeng (Charlie Ruedpokanon), who would have killed her at Crystal’s behest had he been given the chance. And although he does challenge Chang/God to a fight and loses, he then basically gives himself up and lets himself be taken away by God/Chang – either deprived of his arms or of his life.

The reason why I prefer this second reason is because it opens up space for us to critique Refn’s film, or rather to posit limitations in its would-be philosophical argument that we live in an entangled world where God/Chang is not some transcendental Being that sits outside the universe detachedly looking in, but that Chang/God is immanent – everywhere and everywhen, hence his ubiquity in the film. That God is in everyone and everything; we are all god particles, as it were. Darkness is not in some place, it is everywhere, it is the preceding condition that allows light to exist, the void that enables time, change and difference to come into becoming.

This would help us to make sense of the film’s use of human voices. While Julian perhaps aspires to be godly, Crystal maybe aspires to be God. This is signalled by her being the only character who talks a lot. For, what is the voice except for an attempt to get out from within us that which expresses – via sound – who we are. The voice, sound, is, of course, invisible. We cannot see it (synaesthetes aside). And so the voice is godly, with the gravitas of God (this is perhaps why in Judeo-Christian myths God is often only heard of as a voice – and the voice plays a key role in commanding humans, as Hitler and his wireless radio knew).

And yet, if through speaking Crystal aspires to be God, that which pours forth from her mouth is vitriolic bile – memorably calling Mai a ‘cumdumpster’ among other things. That is – and the film’s gender bias is not lost on me – Crystal is some sort of evil being who cannot  be and is not forgiven by Chang.

(Mai, by contrast, comes off okay in the film, although that most females in the film are whores is definitely problematic. Mai refuses to accept a dress given to her by Julian, and so he makes her strip. She stands in black underwear – no doubt an object of the male gaze, but also almost invisible as a result of the blackness that envelops her. This does speak of the invisibility of women, perhaps, but maybe within Only God Forgives‘s formal schemata, it signals her refusal to be exploited. And arguably – though I am not wholly convinced – Julian’s refusal actually to sleep with her speaks of his desire not to exploit, with exploitation problematically woven together with sexual desire for the Oriental other.)

Back to voices: Julian barely speaks. But Chang, on the other hand, gets a series of somewhat surrealistic karaoke numbers. Not only does he have a voice, then, but it is a beautiful one. The voice reinforces his status as black hole: we can hear him even if we cannot see his voice.

So here is the critique of Refn, then.

For, while I like the philosophical implications of Refn’s film, provided I have understood it not necessarily correctly, but at least cogently, there are still issues. I like the way that the film explores darkness, acknowledging how there are invisible forces at work in us as humans, in the universe as a whole, and in our globalised society (capitalism hides labour rather than showing it). But Julian is of course still a Westerner. He may be a Westerner who aspires to be godly, who does not speak much, who refuses to sleep with Mai, and who acknowledges the ungodliness of his mother by splitting her open and sticking his hands inside her. But it is only a few Westerners who can achieve this position. Julian may have killed his Western father to become more ‘Eastern’ – but it is, in short, only rich Westerners who can afford the luxury of being ‘Eastern’. The film – through Crystal – acknowledges this: Julian is only getting by in Thailand as a result of drug dealing (and let us be clear, Julian does still kill at least two people in the film, and beats up various others). So his pretense at somehow deflating East-West or First-Third binarisms is in fact a very privileged (Western/First) manoeuvre to try and pull off.

In other words, even if Julian is named after a woman (unsubstantiated, but the female Julian of Norwich saw that humans had wrath, while God forgives humans for this), thereby making his character less heteronormative and, basically, from the rich world, he is nonetheless still from the rich world.

For all of the metaphysics, then, politics still comes back to haunt us – ideology perhaps being another black hole of sorts. For if First World wealth is predicated upon a history of pillage and slavery, then so is the professed kinship that characters like Julian seem to claim to have with Chang/God Himself.

What is true of the film’s story becomes true of Only God Forgives itself. In going – as per Thomas Clay – to Thailand to make a film (with many other Western filmmakers making films in other parts of the Third World), Refn may demonstrate kinship, but he also signals ongoing socioeconomic disparities.

Refn is not – at least not from me – under any obligation to make any particular sort of film. Nonetheless, for all of its intellectual pomp, Only God Forgives may still be an exploitative film, not just because it is about bodies and exploitation, nor because it features exploitatively explicit gore, but because to make a film about a Westerner who tries to become or to find kinship with an Easterner is a luxury that only a Westerner could afford.

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
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