It’s week 7, and finalists like me are stressed out by dissertation deadlines. I’d forgotten I was a columnist until my editor messaged me on a Tuesday afternoon as I sat upstairs in a Starbucks watching the Christian man outside thrust pamphlets on people. I quickly threw my honey-coloured hair up in a messy bun and ran downstairs.
“Dan’s here,” the barista said. “You didn’t pay for your coffee so now you belong to him.” Oh no, I thought. I was afraid. But Dan sat me down, looked me in the eyes with his emerald orbs, and started talking about Danish film director Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2013 movie, Only God Forgives. Ryan Gosling, a boxer and drug dealer living in Bangkok, investigates his brother’s death and comes head to head with a determined, corrupt detective. As Dan and I fell slowly in love, we pondered the question: Is Only God Forgives good?
Jiaqi: I’m always down to watch Ryan Gosling smash someone’s head in with a hammer while neon lights flicker in the background.
Dan: I too appreciate a bit of 7th week ultraviolence. I enjoy how all of Refn’s films feel visually experimental. That said, it’s very difficult to follow the narrative. You see him improve on that later in his career with stuff like The Neon Demon, But it’s still got recognisably “Winding-Refn” visual tropes. Hallucinogenic color palettes, interesting and imposing sets… it’s fascinating to watch, even if you’re not sure what’s going on. Watching it again you can see how it influences later films like Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into the Night. Refn is excellent at creating dream-like environments that are still able to contain a lot of tension and action.
Jiaqi: I was surprised to find out that this was made after Drive. I liked Drive a lot more, because it has a more compelling and had more of a focused narrative. I also liked The Place Beyond the Pines, which is another film, with a nice color palette, about a brooding criminal Gosling having to deal with the consequences of his actions, except he’s on a motorbike here, and also there’s Dane Dehaan.
Dan: Does Gosling’s character have to deal with the consequences in Only God Forgives? He just gets his hands chopped off at the end. Right from the start justice feels like this very ambiguous and temperamental presence. It’s got the same vibe as a video game like ‘Hotline Miami’, but here it leans a lot more into a bizarre, orientalising gaze to generate the seedy underworld feeling.
Jiaqi: I’m glad you brought that up. This was a film about a white man who goes to some anonymous developing country and does what he wants there. Here, the Thai locals are no less disposable than scurrying rats. Also, if you look at the cast list, the names of all the Thai characters are Chinese. Of course, it could be that this is set in Bangkok’s Chinatown. But I’d like that to be made clear. Because I’m slightly worried that Winding Refn can’t tell the difference between Chinese and Thai people…? Refn has had this issue before, like when he whitewashed Carey Mulligan’s character in Drive because he didn’t think people would feel protective towards a Latina actress. He essentially admitted he doesn’t see Latina women as equally human.
Dan: It’s a bit odd that you never see a world outside that of vice. That said, it’s not that unusual in this kind of genre. Refn says he’s inspired by Sergio Leone’s Westerns, and you also see a massive issue in how Latinos are portrayed in those films. Tuco in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is the most favorably-presented Mexican character, and even he is literally coded as ‘the ugly’. In You can see that Refn uses race in a comparably instrumental way.
Consensus: It has so much potential. Maybe Refn should have just edited it and made it into a vaporwave music video.