Saturday, July 27, 2013

Review: Only God Forgives

  • Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
  • Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Rhatha Po-ngam
  • Released in Thai cinemas on July 18, 2013; rated 18+
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 4/5

My impressions of Only God Forgives are as wildly divergent as the critical response has been, ranging from Rex Reed’s pronouncement that it’s one of the worst movies ever (not just worst movie ever made in Thailand) to other critics’ glowing praise for director Nicolas Winding Refn.

Let me get to the good part: Vithaya Pansringarm. Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas might be billed higher, but it’s Vithaya who is the real star and hero of Only God Forgives. He’s the "Angel of Vengeance", a retired cop who metes out his own brand of justice on the streets.

With seemingly supernatural abilities, this figure in a black suit and white shirt can appear out of nowhere on the street or in a vice den. He can vanish just as quickly too, disappearing into the ether by stepping into a Sukhumvit Road hawker’s stall like Superman changes outfits in a phonebooth.

Like cartoon characters have a “hammer space” from which they can pull all manner of Acme products, the Angel can produce a small Japanese-style sword from behind his back. This razor-sharp instrument of justice can lop off hands, slice open ribcages or inflect stab wounds that leave the victims bleeding like stuck pigs.

The Angel additionally has the ability to sense approaching danger, allowing him to get the drop on gunmen. And his ability to seemingly teleport through the back-alleys of Bangkok’s Chinatown put him a step ahead of the crooks.

Also, he sings a mean karaoke (cool soundtrack by Cliff Martinez), and always to a rapt audience of the high-ranking boys in brown who support him.

A lavish karaoke parlor is also the scene of one of the Angel’s most-talked-about scenes, where he pins a foreign gangster to a chair by driving steel chopsticks through his arms and various other bar implements in various other bodily places. Yikes.

On the bad side is a guy named Julian, a gangster who runs a Muay Thai gym as a front for his drug-dealing. He shares hardly any of the characteristics of Gosling's Drive character, though both Julian and the Driver are similar in that they hardly speak.

Julian, on the other hand is extremely weak and cowardly, with perhaps no redeeming qualities other than he’s kind to soi dogs. He has been forever in the shadow of his older brother – who’s possibly the worst-behaved expat in Bangkok (which put him high in the running for possibly the worst-behaved expat in the world). Julian is also cowed by his monster of a mother (a campily cathartic Scott Thomas).

When brother Billy (Tom Burke) is killed for his horrible behavior, Julian’s bleached-blonde dragon-lady mother arrives on the scene, spitting fire. With a colorful description for the locals that can’t be printed here, she orders Julian to take revenge, goading him with comments about how his penis is smaller than his dead brother's and other hamfistedly obvious allusions to his Oedipal complex.

Julian, meanwhile, is also given to inexplicably weird bouts of daydreaming, in which he imagines lurid sexual escapades with karaoke hostess Mai (a brave Rhatha Pho-ngam).

It’s not until he actually speaks to her and unwisely invites her to dinner with his mother that it becomes clear their relationship is mostly in his sick mind.

Eventually, Julian and the Angel meet, with Julian asking “Wanna fight?”

Brave words, but Julian can’t back them up. The brawl, taking place against a red backdrop and the giant face of a Chinese figure, leaves Julian battered, bruised and black-eyed. And the Angel didn’t even break a sweat.

Finally, I feel like somebody got something right with a portrayal of the city’s seedy side. It isn’t as ridiculous as The Hangover Part II or Nicolas Cage’s remake of Bangkok Dangerous. Yes, it’s lurid, gritty and idealised, with its overwhelming reds, garishly patterened wallpaper and ostentatious karaoke bars, but it somehow seems real.

And it’s comforting to think that there’s Angel watching over – just as long as you aren’t on the wrong side of his justice scales.

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