Another Look at ‘Only God Forgives’

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Anthony Assad takes another look at Only God Forgives

 

Another tag team effort from director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling transports the action to Bangkok in a no holds barred marmite of a movie experience currently turning heads and stomachs in a cinema near you.

Gosling’s Julian runs a boxing club as a front for his drug business, when his brother is murdered and his mother (a scene-stealing vitriol-seething Kirsten Scott Thomas) demands vengeance, a surreal conflict ensues against the local authorities led by the seemingly supernatural Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) monikered as the “Angel of Vengeance”.

The narrative soon reveals itself however as a wolf in sheep’s clothing as audiences are pummelled by a one-two punch parable of penance and godlike retribution enough to make Shakespeare blush (or bruise) in its excruciating execution.

Bangkok is painted like purgatory for expat Julian and when past and present crimes catch up with him all hell breaks loose in an orgy of violence. Heads cave in, limbs fly and stomach wounds fit like a glove in mercifully off-screen but heart-stopping in the lead up to outbursts of depravity.

Gosling provides another almost wordless performance and scowls with such ferocity at times it’s almost hypnotic as scenes bleed into one another like some half-remembered dream. The dream itself is beautiful to look at however with sequences often opening on dramatic tableaus providing for some mesmerising neon-drenched compositions. The inherent problem is that they’re sandwiched between wanton acts of gruesome violence seeking an operatic effect but ultimately stumble into pantomime.

Not even dinnertime is free from the chaos in one memorable scene in which Julian presents a prostitute posing as girlfriend to his peroxide blonde acid-tongued mother Crystal. For starters she spews profanities like there’s no tomorrow before serving up a main course of manhood jibes towards her one surviving son who remains powerless to rebuke “because she’s my mother!” Adding insult to injury she may prove more than that as shared scenes hint towards an incestual relationship that may have contributed to his emigration and state of mind.

Perhaps this is where the film is intended to take place, in the fractured mind of its protagonist. We can only imagine the full extent of Julian’s dysfunctional existence and his attempted escape lands him in a nightmare dominated by an all seeing all knowing God that demands flesh for forgiveness. Seeing as the film is also dedicated to Chilean director and celebrated surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky it makes sense that Winding Refn is seeking a more cerebral effort separate to the super cool stylings of Drive.

Another change of gear lies in the real star of the show Pansringarm as the Avenging Cop Chang who can summon blades at will to dispense his unique brand of justice. When he isn’t reducing gangsters to pin cushions or tenderising Gosling to a pulp he’s serenading his squad with melancholy pop songs like a sermon after a long night of dismemberment. He pervades through every scene like a spectre and with even less lines than Gosling manages to convey enough menace in a sideways glance to bore a hole in your chest.

While Winding Refn should be commended for such a risky change of pace after winning both genre and art-house audiences with Drive, Only God Forgives is a polarising experience that will leave most viewers dismayed, disorientated and maybe even disgusted. If you’re a lover and not a fighter it’s incredibly atmospheric at times but the real fight is in trying not to walk away during the rest.

 

 

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IFI presents: Wanna Fight? Season

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The IFI presents the Wanna Fight? Season from 331stAugust , a specially curated series of films to accompany the August 2nd release of the controversial and brutal new film by Nicolas Winding Refn Only God Forgives.

‘I’m a pornographer’declared Nicolas Winding Refn in a recent interview ‘I make films about what arouses me. What I want to see. Very rarely to understand why I want to see it and I’ve learned not to become obsessed with that part of it’. Though the director of Pusher and Drive has always been an arch provocateur, his new film, the elegant and brutal Only God Forgives starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Scott Thomas, has brought new levels of controversy with the film’s stylised violence becoming one of the major talking points of this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Yet Winding Refn’s films are never entirely cold or alienating and the heart of a true cineaste beats through his work. The IFI’s Wanna Fight? season is a selection of Winding Refn’s key influences and references, some directly acknowledged and some suggested. In particular the season contextualises Only God Forgives which audiences are invited to make their own minds up about when it is released at the IFI on August 2nd.

Winding Refn has been keen to invoke the names of other filmmakers in his work. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s name appears on the credits to both Drive and Only God Forgives, the genius filmmaker is represented here by the bizarre, beautiful and brilliant Santa Sangre. Also explicitly referenced by Winding Refn in relation to Only God Forgives is Gaspar Noé, a fellow provocateur, whose Enter the Void proved one of the most divisive of films released at the IFI in 2009. Winding Refn has namechecked Richard Kern, a key member of the 1980s NYC Cinema of Transgression Movement, and a selection of his short works characterised by extreme eroticism and disturbing violence are included in the season.

Other elements in the Wanna Fight? season are more thematic. Kirsten Scott Thomas’s evil matriarch who encourages her son to do despicable things in Only God Forgives has a strong resonance with Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate. With Wong Kar Wai it’s more the richly coloured and textured look of his films such as Ashes of Time Redux that form the link to Winding Refn, while with the Pang Brothers Bangkok Dangerous it’s the terrific low-budget gun-play that warrants its inclusion.

Other highlights of the season include Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter and David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. Oh, and if you’re only catching up with the violent swathe Winding Refn has cut through the world of film, there’s another chance to see 2011’s cool and casually gory Drive back on the big screen! Full details of all the films in the season are available at www.ifi.ie

Wanna Fight? Season – Times and Dates in August

The Manchurian Candidate – John Frankenheimer  – Aug 3rd16.05 & Aug 5th 18.20

Santa Sangre – Alejandro Jodorowsky – Aug 7th 20.30 & Aug 10th 13.30

Ashes of Time Redux – Wong Kar Wai – August 13th20.50

Drive – Nicolas Winding Refn – Aug 14th 18.30

Bangkok Dangerous – The Pang Brothers –  Aug 21st20.45

Wild at Heart – David Lynch – Aug 25th15.30 & Aug 26th 18.15

Enter the Void –  Gaspar Noé – Aug 28th20.15 & Aug 31st 15.15

Tokyo Drifter – Seijun Suzuki – Aug 29th18.30 & Aug 31st 18.30

Richard Kern Programme – Richard Kern – Aug 29th20.30 & Aug 31st 13.15

Tickets go on sale from the IFI Box Office in person, on 01 679 5744 or online at www.ifi.ie from the 25th July 2013

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