On Only God Forgives

I saw Only God Forgives, Nicholas Winding Refn’s new film last night. I quite - liked might not be the word (enjoyed certainly isn’t, and I watched at least one scene through my fingers) - the film. I found it intriguing, anyway. And it lingers, as I try and work out where I am with it.

One of the things that interested me, apart from the film itself was the audience reaction to the film. I saw it in a fairly full screening, which I think is, in large part due to the reunion of Drive’s Refn and Ryan Gosling. But Only God Forgives isn’t Drive part two, and it felt like a lot of the audience didn’t quite know what to do with this film, which pushes much further than Drive into silence and in trying to deal with conscience, justice and judgement (and is darker, literally, as well as more silent and more violent).

There was a good bit of phone checking, unconfortable giggling, and baffled comments at the end. And it is, in the immediacy of the cinema, a pretty natural reaction to the film, which is different, a bit difficult, and which feels significantly longer than its 90 minutes (I have to admit to watch checking, and time was definitely slower in that screening). But I think that if that’s all we do with it - dismiss it as baffling and dislikeable - and possibly swear off such films in future or say, ‘Yeah it was rubbish,’ and put other people off going, then we’re condeming ourselves to more summers of big-budget sequels and comic books, and films made for immediate gratification of our emotions. I don’t dislike those films, incidentally: I like a lot of them a lot - but I dislike the unvarying diet of them. I want variety, and something that stretches my brain and makes me question my immediate responses, or pokes at the world around me, as much as I want the blasting joy and entertainment of something like Avengers.

Refn was interviewed by Zoe Ball for Radio 5 Live’s ‘Wittertainment’ (Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode being on holidays), in which he said something really interesting (to me) about the character of Chang, the Thai policemen / avenging fury of Only God Forgives (forgive the rough transcription)

“The idea of him was the notion of taking the god of the Old Testament, where god said, ‘you have to fear me or I will be cruel, if you love me I will be kind.’ Its’ a very interesting character to portray, because it’s purely primal. It’s cause and effect, it’s instinctual. He was there, kind of not to be the antagonistic… he is the key to the confrontation between Julian and his mother.”

It was an interesting explanation of the film to me - because although Refn refers to Chang as the key that turns the relationship between Julian and Crystal in the film - I think I read the film with Julian being caught between Chang and Crystal, and, in a reading that places Change as a concept of god, Crystal is probably the devil.

I’m using small-g god, incidentally, because I think (or am choosing to think) of Refn as talking about a conception of god, not about ‘God’-the-entity-I-believe-in, and I want to distinguish between conceptions of god, and my understanding of God, because while I can see Refn’s conception of god, as expressed in this interview and in Only God Forgives in the Old Testament, it’s not the only picture or whole picture I see when I’m looking at the picture of God.

That said, I think Refn’s is not an uncommon reading of god in the Old Testament in Western Europe: a god who adminsters judgement and justice from a point of perfection and absoluteness, outside the messy context of humanity.

And I think that as an audience we doen’t know what to do with that today when we see it in art, especially in popular art like a film, in the same way that many people don’t really know what to do with these characteristics of god in the Old Testament or with a serious concept of the devil as real and personal. In the showing I saw, the response was largely to be uncomfortable and baffled by the judgement and justice that Chang brings (and to try and avoid watching the brutality of that through our fingers), and to giggle in that shocked-uncomfortable-i-don’t-believe-this-is-real way at the transparency of Crystal’s nature, which is so far beyond unpleasant that it is, I think, categorisable as evil.

Chang is just ‘there’ - but not there. He’s not a part of the real world of Bangkok’s police whilst being with a part of Bangkok’s police. He’s both present and not, slipping in and out of Julian’s visible world, intangible but aware. He is present when he needs to be present, and does what he needs to do to redress the balance. And we’re uncomfortable with that because absolutism is terrifying - and it’s terrifying because we are always contextual our vices and failures always extenuated (to us) by the context we’re in. So as an audience we stand with Julian when he ‘fails’ Crystal by refusing to avenge his brother, because Billy is not someone who deserves that vengeance, and with him before Chang - who we want to forgive Julian for his actions, and for his life in general, because we’ve met his mother, a walking, talking extenuating circumstance for her son’s life.

In Refn’s Only God Forgives everyone’s future depends on Chang. There is no redeemer figure - for all that Crystal attempts to send Julian to stand in her place before him. Only he decides what is due. And for a while it seems like Chang might - if not forgive - at least overlook Julian. He is beaten and bloodied, but repairably so, until he goes to Chang, unwilling to let go the judgement he feels he deserves - because he accepts the existence of Chang as an inevitability in the cosmic order in a way that Crystal does not, and believes that even if he is not all his own creation, he still has dues to pay.

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