Two years after the commercial success of his 2011 neo-noir ‘Drive’ Nicolas Winding Refn takes a step back from narrative storytelling and cinema as entertainment to deliver a surrealist piece of art about crime, punishment and the search for God, misunderstood and underrated by mainstream audience. MIGHT CONTAIN SPOILERS
Following the works of surrealist directors Luis Buñuel, Alejandro Jodorowsky or David Lynch ‘Only God Forgives’ is almost impossible to understand on a narrative level as Refn chooses not to tell his story through dialogues and conventional plot elements but through a pattern of symbolic imagery, mesmerising over-composed shots, over-coloured filters and extreme violence. The Asian setting is a fictional, heightened reality working by its own laws. Refn himself calls the film a ‘fairy tale’ – it is a neon-fuelled, dreamlike conversion story to be interpreted as thoughts and emotions but is often mistaken for a poorly done gangster/revenge film. This wouldn’t be the first occasion – the director’s 2009 film ‘Valhalla Rising’ similarly failed viewer expectations.
‘Only God Forgives’ protagonist Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a muay thai boxing club with his brother Billy (Tom Burke) for their mother’s drug ring in the Bangkok underworld. After saying his line ‘Time to meet the devil’ Billy sets out to rape and murder a fourteen year old prostitute and is killed by the girl’s father after retired but ultimately respected police officer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) gives him permission to – but chops the man’s arm off because he has given his daughter up for prostitution. Before Julian is informed by his brother’s death his hands are tied to a chair by a prostitute and as he watches her masturbate he has a vision of himself walking through a corridor and reaching into the darkness only to have his hand chopped off by Chang (currently unknown to Julian). His mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives to Bangkok and asks him to avenge Billy’s murder. Julian spares the life of the one-armed man after listening to his story. In another vision he is seen washing his hands and the water from the tap turns into blood. Understanding that his son hasn’t done what he was told Crystal hires other men to kill the father first – then later Chang, the one responsible. After the father’s death Julian sees Chang for the first time as the police come to question him – he later follows Chang, but loses his trail. Julian buys Mai a dress and asks her to accompany him as he meets with his mother for dinner. Crystal disgraces both of them and afterwards Julian screams at Mai to take the dress off. Hired criminals fail to assassinate Chang and he brutally kills and tortures them. Julian shows up at the karaoke bar Chang usually sings in. Chang accepts his offer for a bare-knuckle boxing fight which Julian loses badly without landing a single hit. Crystal asks distorted faced Julian to for protection and he goes to Chang’s house but rather kills his own partner than hurting Chang’s young daughter. Meanwhile, Crystal defends herself and blames Julian saying that he has killed his own father before Chang stabs her with his sword. Chang comes for Julian too and he is willing to have both of his hands chopped off. As the credits start rolling we see Chang singing again in the karaoke bar.
To examine this film we have to be aware of its repetitive elements. One of the most important symbols is the one of the hands. Numerous shots include Julian’s hands, either open or fisted. They can be seen as a tool of violence in the fight scene. Since only men make violent acts in the film the hands can represent their masculinity – a feature they are dispossessed of by the act of the removal of hands. Becoming unable to fight, losing masculinity this way is a Freudian symbol of castration. The father of the prostitute receives this punishment as a penance of his wrongdoing. Is it logical to believe that Julian’s case is similar. His first vision predicts his punishment – in the second one he is seen washing blood off his hands. Julian does not speak much (Gosling has only 17 lines in the film) – his silence and suppressed frustration are caused by his troubled past. He is claimed to have killed his own father, a crime he must suffer for. He doesn’t fight his destiny and accepts his punishment, similarly to the Greek myth of king Oedipus who blinds himself realising that he has murdered his own father and married his own mother (a storyline adapted for films such as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Oedipus Rex’ or Chan-wook Park’s ‘Oldboy’).
The other reason for the Oedipal suffering is also justified. The character of the mother – who might be based on Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth considering that she, being the real antagonist of the film, manipulates the ones around her to carry out her plan – presumably had an incestious relationship with one or both of her sons. In the dinner scene she compares Julian’s penis to his brother’s and calls the latter ‘enormous’. She says that Julian has always been jealous of Billy. In a sexual or non-sexual way Julian wants to please his mother and he must have killed his father in order to do this as she mentions it as a favour in the scene she asks for protection in. She uses and humiliates him and Julian takes it without a word – because ‘she is his mother’, as he answers to Mai with anger after the dinner. When he finds his mother’s corpse he cuts her stomach open and reaches inside her body. As the re-entering of her womb is impossible he has to face losing his ‘home’. This is the last step of his spiritual journey of letting his worshipped mother, the graven image, the god of his past life go and accepting the new god.
The new god is Chang, the Angel of Vengeance (the re-incarnation of warrior One-Eye from ‘Valhalla Rising’, according to Refn). He is cruel as he judges and punishes the sinners. After he has taken vengeance on someone he is seen in the karaoke bar singing. This represents a restored order after his task is done. The children in the boxing club surround him and bow before him. Before Julian asks for a fight, another police officer asks him if he knows Chang and he nods. His reason to fight is not to prove his own strength but to test Chang’s. Chang reminds him of the iconic boxing statue he’s seen standing in front of earlier in the film. By winning the fight God has proven his existence. After understanding that his mother is gone he is ready to accept faith and the righteous punishment for his crime and receive forgiveness which can lead to self-acceptance. The Angel of Vengeance is therefore generous – ‘only God forgives’. His task is done – he is back in the karaoke bar, singing to the same immobile audience the same way he has done before, as he is eternal.