Upon its release, Nicolas Wending Refn’s Only God Forgives was met with polarising reviews from critics, many of whom denounced it for focusing on style rather than substance. What they failed to realise is that the substance is there – you just have to read the style in order to understand it properly. Only God Forgives tells its story through imagery and careful editing rather than bluntly spelling it out to its audience; it’s art house cinema, yes, but it’s also cinema itself on the purest level.
Simply put, the film follows an American named Julian (Ryan Gosling) who runs a drug smuggling operation in the criminal underworld of Bangkok. When his brother is murdered after raping and killing a young prostitute. Julian’s manipulative mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas), shows up demanding that Julian avenge his brother, though he is hesitant to do so. Things become even more complicated when the unpredictable head of the Thai police force, Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), starts to investigate the situation.
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The beauty of a film being as ambiguous as this one is that it’s completely open to any and all theories and interpretations. Only God Forgives primarily plays as a fantastical nightmare: the characters often move slowly with blank expressions and many things occur within the film that make little to no sense whatsoever. The character of Julian also experiences visions that are spliced in between what the audience knows (or believes) to be reality – this brings me to the character of Chang.
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Though it can be interpreted that Chang represents God given that he is head of the police and the one that decides and executes punishments, it seems far more likely that Chang actually is a god, as throughout the film he appears to display otherworldly powers and seems to be exceptionally revered by the other policemen. A good example of these powers would be when a hit man it sent to kill Chang at Crystal’s behest while he is out having dinner: the scene intercuts between Crystal smoking in her hotel room and Chang suddenly getting an ominous look on his face, as though he is able to sense what is about to happen. Another example is the mysterious sword with which Chang carries out his punishments – given that Refn repeatedly shows us there is no sword hanging on Chang’s back, it looks as though he is able to pull it out of thin air just when he needs it. Chang himself often seems to appear out of thin air, as when he is onscreen we’re never specifically shown where he is coming from, just that he is always there. The karaoke scenes also serve to further the idea of his elevated status: in Thailand karaoke is considered to be a practice so widespread that it takes on almost a religious part of people’s lives. The fact Chang is the only one seen singing in a karaoke bar after every punishment while the other policemen watch him adoringly could be compared to that of a sermon – Chang is God and the policemen are his followers.
Hands are a key symbol within the film when trying to piece together the overall as well as underlying themes and plots. One of Julian’s most prominent visions features Chang cutting off Julian’s hands; there are also various shots of Julian looking down at his hands with a look of guilt on his face. Crystal mentions at one point that Julian killed his father at her request, this brings an almost Oedipal complex into the mix as we continuously receive hints that Julian is a victim of incestuous abuse from Crystal. Such as, when she touches his bottom while hugging him or discusses to other people how he and his brother perform sexually, while Julian is there to listen. It’s therefore implied that Julian cannot perform sexually or be intimate with others, exemplified by the scene where he watches a prostitute pleasure herself while he is sitting on a chair with his hands tied up. Hands can be used to perform both sexual and violent acts – perhaps Julian confuses these acts due to his abusive past. He is often seen clenching his hands into fists, a sign of the repressed urges he must be feeling. The infamous scene towards the end when Julian slices the dead Crystal’s stomach (or is it her womb?) and places his hand inside can be read as him seeking closure in one last attempt to be close to her, given that’s where she carried him for nine months. The final scene where Julian finally succumbs to Chang and allows him to cut off his hands is him seeking a new start. He finally free from the tormenting hold his mother had over him.
An important thing to realise about Only God Forgives is that Julian is not a hero you’re supposed to root for to take down the “bad guy”. Instead he is a frightened little boy with serious issues that has been severely abused and manipulated by his mother his entire life. Likewise, Chang is not a villain. The story refuses to be that simple. What Refn presents us with, is a bunch of hopeless white people thinking they can do what they please while simultaneously clawing at a culture that will undoubtedly swallow them whole. This film is a fascinating visual symphony of downright appalling ideas and is completely unapologetic in its execution of them; it knows this won’t win it much love, but it also doesn’t care.
Words by Samantha King