I have recently watched the film Only God Forgives thanks to the wonders of being able to stream Netflix. If you are a fan of this blog you would know that the fact that this film features Ryan Gosling is pretty important. This film was released last year and takes place in Bangkok, Thailand. It is directed by the same director as Drive which is actually one of my favorite movies. I stumbled upon this movie while browsing through Netflix and decided to watch it since it looked interesting, having a more indie movie kind of vibe to it. Plus, the title interested me and the synopsis mentioned how it dealt with a brother trying to get revenge for his brother’s death….which actually turned out to be much more complicated and profound than that.
Just a warning, this movie does tend to be on the slower side and doesn’t have much action. Only God Forgives is supposed to be a more contemplative and reflective cinematic work. From the opening scene, it is apparent that the cinematography is something that is other worldly. I had never seen camera work and lighting like it before! The shots were perfectly thought out and weren’t so much as just a way to tell a story, but they conveyed emotion and enhanced it. Right off the bat, you could tell that it is going to be a serious movie as the camera pans down the lighted corridors of Muy Thai club run by the main character Julian, played by Gosling. The premise of the story is that Julian’s brother, Billy, gets killed after a cop, Chang, allows the father of a prostitute that Billy killed to ultimately beat Billy to death. The rest of the movie is Julian and his mother’s struggle to exact revenge and determining the morality of it. Despite how Julian doesn’t want to exact revenge because he feels it would be inhuman, his mother goes behind his back to try and gain vengeance on the father of the victim and Chang. This very plot scheme is what is so central to both the movie and its title, Only God Forgives.
Only God Forgives has a plot that goes to another level as far as symbolism when one takes into consideration the religious meaning behind the figures and events of the movie. Just as a warning, I will reveal some plot details and there may possibly be some spoilers. First, it is clear that Chang in this movie represents God as he is the character in this movie that exacts justice and grants mercy to those who deserve it. People who interact with Chang see him not as if he is a normal person, one scene of the movie where Chang hunts down a “sinner” it seems as if he teleports and is omniscient. In addition, to those he does grant mercy to he leaves them a way to always remember their sins, by cutting off one of their arms. For example, Chang allows the victim’s father to kill Billy but Chang then questions why he forced his own daughter into prostitution. He then cuts off the father’s arm as a permanent reminder of his sins as long as he is alive. Chang’s crew of police officers that admire and follow him are his angels helping him bring justice to the lawless and the sinners. The way Bangkok is portrayed by its dark and neon lighting is almost hellish (mostly red, orange, and yellow tones) with smoggy fumes, while when Chang is in his home the lighting is brighter and heavenly, suggesting its his Heaven.
Whenever Chang brings justice through his sword, it is as if it appears from no where because it isn’t seen in any shots before at all. In another scene, where Julian challenges Chang to a fight, Julian doesn’t land a single punch on Chang and Chang proceeds to horribly defeat him. This suggests that when one fights God that there is no winning.
In this movie, Julian plays the role of the common man and this will be explained further on. I believe that Julian’s mother plays the role of the Devil in this clash of good against evil. She is obsessed with trying to get revenge for the death of her son, but as soon as she appears in the movie it is clear that she isn’t a normal mother. Her attitude and manner of carrying herself comes across as cruel and sinister. She tells Julian to find the father that killed Billy and kill him. When Julian does find the man, he realizes that he shouldn’t do this and realizes that he will live with the consequences seeing that his arm got cut off from Chang. He sets the man go and grants him mercy. His mother is furious that he did that and continues to egg him on to find and kill the man. She results to tempting him to do so and by insulting his manhood. It is clear that she is a dominant and demanding mother and that it affected Julian growing up.
Throughout the movie, it seems Julian has trouble interacting and talking with women and perhaps it was a result of his horrible childhood with his mother. One also learns that his mother demanded him and forced him to kill his father which will play an important part at the end of the movie. In the end, Chang ends up killing Julian’s mother’s henchmen and herself in order to end the attempts at revenge by her. Throughout the movie, Julian has a recurring vision of his arms being chopped off by Chang and the movie ends with the two of them in a field and Chang chops off Julian’s hands. This symbolizes how despite Julian being a sinner, much like humanity in general, Julian is able to feel the guilt and repent for his sins, not letting them become a part of himself. With this final vision or scene of Chang and Julian, the cutting of Julian’s hands could be a symbol for a new beginning and letting go of his horrible past. I would definitely recommend this film and despite its slow pace is an excellent film. I found it especially interesting since at the time I was reading Heart of Darkness and how it has allusions to the story of Faust and Mephistopheles.