Friday, 16 August 2013

Only God Forgives (2013)

"What if David Lynch went to Bangkok and made a surreal Bangkok Dangerous with Royston Tan as his DP?"

The elder brother of a crime duo running a major kickboxing/drug trafficking cartel in Bangkok rapes and kills a girl. Justice in the form of an invincible police lieutenant armed with an improbable weapon swiftly catches up with him, an angry mummy flies in from America to put into action her revenge involving the younger brother.

Only God Forgives is an audacious experiment at many levels. Narratively, it’s a simple crime film where the Vigilante White Hat takes down a crime lord’s cronies one by one as he nears the crime lord brooding in his Evil Lair. If the director had played it straight with the White Hat as the protagonist, we would have watched something like Machete in Bangkok. But he doesn’t. The twist is the protagonist and point of view of the film is Ryan Gosling’s impotent crime lord, paralysed by either self-loathing, conscience, or major psychosexual and familial issues.

On top of that, Nicolas Winding Refn reaches for the surrealism of Lynch, the visual aesthetics of Thai New Wave directors like Wisit Sasanatieng, and the anti-establishment subversiveness of Apitchatpong Weerasethakul. While the story is simple and the plot less than conventionally coherent, your attention will be drawn to the effort Refn puts in his formalistic visual compositions, where rooms, doorways, and corridors take on sensual and liminal qualities and are then destabilised by the presence of human bodies.

As frustrating as it is ambitious and brilliant, Only God Forgives isn’t a complete misfire. Far from it. It’s a project whose artistic vision is constantly engaged in a wrestling match with the conventional narrative and archetypes it seeks to subvert. Had David Lynch, Royston Tan, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, or even Alejandro Jodorowsky directed this, critical acclaim and recognition of its genius would probably be more automatic and effusive.

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