Review: Only God Forgives
All the happy morons fresh from the ultra-hip and fashionably smooth/violent hit film Drive were utterly appalled by Nicholas Winding-Refn’s return to his Fear-X/Valhalla Rising roots, ‘Only God Forgives.’ An anti-colonial film affirming the dignity of the Thai people and their righteous indignation at the degradation wrought on their land by the hands of white Anglo/American predators profiting from the sex and drug tourism that any third world country is susceptible to. Ryan Gosling’s Julian is a sniveling brute who runs a Muay Thai gym as a front for his sociopathic older brother’s drug dealing operation. When Julian’s brother is killed in a fit of righteous vengeance, orchestrated by Lt. Chang of the Bangkok police, he is tasked by his gangster mother, Crystal, with taking revenge. Despite knowing his brother got what he deserved, Julian’s overwhelming desire for the peace of the womb makes him a thrall to his mother’s every demand.
Lt. Chang is an angel of vengeance unlike other police vigilantes we’ve seen in movies. His preternatural meditative calm and martial valor make his expression of violence into something pure and elemental. When he draws his ancient Thai machete, it’s the land itself that is crying out for blood, for justice. While Gosling’s performance is admirable in its haplessness and vulnerability, it is the hitherto unknown Vithaya Pansringarm who is the true star of the film. Not only does his presence warp the viewer’s attention towards him in every scene, he demonstrates virtuoso martial arts skills (Pansringarm is a 5th dan in Kendo), and even an incredible singing voice, when he ritualistically purifies himself and his subordinates with a mournful karaoke ballad after every act of bloodshed. The provincial American, with no sense of the karaoke culture of Eastern Asia, sees these moments as something comic and absurd; Refn’s unconsciousness (or perhaps dismissal) of this prejudice is to my mind a mark of real authenticity and respect for Thai culture. All the credits, including the title, are in Thai language, and much of the movie’s dialogue is spoken in Thai. All marketing aside, the main character of the film is certainly Lt. Chang. The white people are monsters, and the victimized Thai women and children possess all the terrible dignity and equanimity of the routinely oppressed.
The ending of Only God Forgives more than echoes that of Valhalla Rising. Like One-Eye, the viking slave, the accumulated guilt of a raider culture, Julian martyrs himself to the sons of a foreign land and finds the amniotic peace he sought in life, not by the mother, but through the right hand of the father.