God forgives, Bangkok doesn't
Nicolas Winding Refn escapes, barely, from his adventure into the heart of darkness
Handcuffed to Ryan Gosling in the nightmare that's my home city, let me walk you through the checklist.
Elephant: Yes. Eastern mysticism: Yes. Muay Thai: Yes. Monks or monk-like figures: Yes. Nocturnal Bangkok in the claws of neon light: Yes. Flummoxed foreigners lost in a labyrinth: Certainly yes. Prostitution: Naturally yes. Tawdry bars (in this case twinkling little karaoke bars): Morbidly, yes.
Vithaya Pansringarm plays a karmic cop in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives .
We can probably count a few more. Never mind that these "exciting" qualities - I'm avoiding "exotic", as perhaps director Nicolas Winding Refn was, too, to peculiar effect - are not very exciting to anyone who lives in this sticky Third World Lost Angel-is, it's always instructive to watch ourselves being watched by visiting filmmakers, parachuting in to soak up the dripping sweat and unleash the demons in their characters.
Of course I'm referring to Refn's Only God Forgives, which was hated at its Cannes premiere, but I could also be talking about Todd Phillips' moronic The Hangover Part II (2011), which was hated everywhere. And while all the flak that burst at Refn's Oedipal gore-fest immediately after the Cannes screenings may not be far off the mark, there's a certain perverse fascination in the way Refn pushes the catalogue of Orientalist fantasies to its hellish extreme. Despite all the hairy debacles that befall the Wolfpack in The Hangover, the film is still a tourism brochure with a promise of splendid squalor. Seeing Only God Forgives, unsuspecting foreigners would change their destination to Pyongyang.
I have no idea whether it was through crafty design or pure chance that Refn plunged into the cesspool and emerged with this unforgiving vision of our capital.
I'm not sure if he's lost inside the exotic trap or if he's meditated his way through the tempting veneer of the city (with the help, surely, of many Asian films). Contextually, what Refn is doing here is far from new.
Following the bloody exploits of an American man (Gosling) out for revenge after his brother is murdered by an ex-cop who wields a samurai sword, Only God Forgives fully exploits those simplistic dualities that appeal to Western writers/filmmakers who dive into the riddle of Southeast Asia: mysticism v carnality, spiritual fatalism v aphrodisiacal seduction, "Buddhist" serenity v infernal criminality.
The crudest wing of this pitches temples against brothels, as in Hangover Part II, or in the countless paperbacks written by foreign authors who publish in Bangkok, often featuring murders and bar girls. With slight tweaks, we have The Beach (2000), with its phony hippie-apocalypse on a paradise island, or the little-seen white-girls-in-prison drama Brokedown Palace (1999), or the 2008 Nicolas Cage version of Bangkok Dangerous (American-produced and directed by Hong Kong's Pang brothers).
This view of Thailand in particular and Southeast Asia in general as a homicidal siren, a hellish amusement park full of writhing bodies, is of course skin-deep in the way most Third World titillation is, or in the way tourism is. It is only when the tension is pushed to the political, metaphysical or historical extremes that we begin to see a glimpse of the genuine danger, of unforgivable sin, through what academics call the post-colonial lens (or as I prefer, the post-Vietnam War one).
Southeast Asia is all pain with no redeeming pleasure to visitors who underestimate this region associated with cheap sex and omnipresent smiles.
In that spectrum, we have something along the lines of Joseph Conrad's Malaya-set Almayer's Folly (and Chantal Akerman's 2012 film adaptation, relocated to Cambodia), or, the ultimate example, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), also Conrad-inspired. As signified by those titles, Southeast Asia is where all Western arrogance and delusion ends, defeated and devoured by the mysterious local forces they are unable to comprehend.
Now while I haven't lost my marbles to the extent of suggesting that Only God Forgives could match the existential gravity of those noble specimens, it's quite amusing to see Refn setting out in that direction. By making Bangkok a surreal nightmare, the Danish director portrays the city as a hole where wounded foreigners come to nurse their guilt, only to find that it is in fact a penal colony in which the punishment meted out, by gods or demons or any other brand of supernatural being, is not as forgiving as in the Western religion, or as these rice-eating Buddhists are supposed to be.
God forgives, karma doesn't - or Bangkok doesn't. OGF's eccentric strategy is to both literalise and hyper-stylise that idea. North American Julian (Gosling) and his carnivorous mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) are on a somnambulant vacation when they set themselves up against Chang (see, "elephant"), the violent Buddha who, instead of converting runaway bandits as in Buddhist lore, subjects them to blood-soaked damnation and digs up their buried skeletons. In Chang (played by kendo instructor Vithaya Pansringarm), Refn conflates that enchanting Asian duality of nihilism and tranquillity in one figure.
It's such a transparent trick, but I have to admit it's also compelling to an extent. Even repentance cannot alter the fate caused by Western innocence, and Julian, in the final moments, becomes a student waiting for the sadistic headmaster to cane him. What he experiences is not justice, it's karma - and while the view that the latter is more just than the former is so primitive, so reprehensibly Orientalist, Refn embraces it with such sheer confidence or blind folly that he gives his film a befitting lunacy.
Cutting across this conceptual literalism is OGF's maddening visual extravagance; the zombie-chic Gosling, his interminable slow motion, the phantasmagoric red colour, the warped spatial composition. Refn's early films are as tough as nails, but his drift towards spacey head-trips in his recent films has yielded mixed results. With his palms still sweating from by his portrait of Los Angeles in Drive (2011), the Dane turns Krungthep into an hallucinatory dungeon because, I suspect, he somehow wasn't confident about his ability to give the place the same kind of tangible reality he achieved with that other angelic city in California.
His exterior shots are uninspiring, anonymous, and he takes cover under the blanket of the phosphorescent night, compensating for his lack of imagination by appropriating the far more controllable interior spaces, in which he pushes the stock images of Bangkok over the edge: the brothel looks skewed and sterile, the Muay Thai ring a trippy den, the alleys ghostly, and the karaoke joints, well, let's say it's time to send thank-you flowers to Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Pen-ek Ratanaruang (who both have a richer sense of humour). That OGF offers no emotional involvement is frustrating, though it's also inevitable.
That it is superficial is a given. It's clear that Refn's plan is to drug us into transcendence, into the eerie plains of his Norse parable Valhalla Rising (2009). He wants this film to levitate, but it doesn't. Instead, it's the subterranean hum and pervading sense of dread, and most of all, the director's delirious idea Bangkok is a torture chamber running on karma, that keep the film's motor running. The irony is plain. If Bangkok specifically or Southeast Asia in general is where Western arrogance ends, is Refn unwittingly putting his neck in the noose too? Even Coppola almost didn't wriggle away from the snare when he made the Philippines into his Vietnam in Apocalypse Now. Karma pursued OGF to the guillotine of Cannes, but my view from the Bangkok gutter believes it lets Refn slip off by a hair's breadth due to his stubbornly nutty delusion - and by his siding with the East in the first place. He may have done a lot of things wrong, but Refn is right about one: Bangkok is hell. Foreign filmmakers beware.
Only God Forgives: Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Ratha Pho-ngarm. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.