[11 April 2014]
In Bangkok, the convulsions of violence on the street merge with scenes of surreal ritual that is possible in the West only in dreams… or drug reveries… or films.
Since its release last year, Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Only God Forgives, a violent neo-noir set in Bangkok, garnered incredibly mixed responses. It was booed when it premiered at Cannes while also receiving a standing ovation.
The chorus of critics on Rotten Tomatoes.com gives it a collective 40 percent rating (a rating below 50 percent is considered “rotten”). Film critic Stephen Holden concluded his New York Times review, “Mom Is a Drug Lord, and Gore Is a Narcotic”, by calling the film “pretentious macho nonsense”.
Only God Forgives, is not as bad as such reviews make it out to be, though some of the critical remarks are valid. The editing is often self-indulgent, the characters function as archetypes, and the climactic scene in which a character sticks his fingers into his dead mother’s womb asks far too much from the audience. Boos are understandable.
Beyond these difficulties, however, the film has its merits. Refn skillfully blends two genres usually kept apart, the psychedelic and the noir. The Eastern setting of the film places it firmly in a long line of exotic entertainment: call it the “Oriental psychedelic-noir”. That his film has problems is undeniable, but by examining Refn’s successful use of location and style, as well as his less successful storyline, lessons emerge that help to define a subgenre that proves fertile ground for further exploration.
Psychedelic Bangkok, Noir City
An obvious question is why Refn chose the Thai capital as the setting for his film. The answer, in part, is not only that it presents an “exotic” background ,but also that Bangkok presents an excellent location for a noir story.
A megacity of almost unimaginable sprawl, Bangkok presents a mixture of extreme poverty with outrageous luxury without the neat lines of such districts as seen in most Western cities. This close mixing of poor and rich creates possibilities for crimes that sometimes seem too far-fetched to be true. Often the local headlines read like the titles of hard-boiled novels, complete with crooked cops, prurient sex and drug rings, and murder by Ferrari. For example, perusing The Bangkok Post one comes across headlines such as: “Drug rehab murder mystery: Drug addicts claim teachers killed patients, flee rehab”; “Road killing of police: Police want charges dropped: Red Bull heir was not speeding when he hit police officer say police experts & might have been drunk after accident not before. Police want 2 year max jail sentence”; “Fake cop kidnappers: Gang leader son of senior policeman in Pathum Thani used info on drug suspects, posed as cops then arrested them to get money from family”; and “Suspected Homchong family killer turns himself in: The suspected hitman wanted for murdering three members of the Homchong family in Bang Kae district last week has turned himself in to police.”
Another well known case here in Bangkok is the 2009 death of actor David Carradine, star of the TV series Kung Fu, by autoerotic asphyxiation in a hotel room near Sukhumvit Road. If ever a story were ripe for a hard-boiled detective novel, that would be it.
For TV news watchers, the political unrest since the coup of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 that frequently erupts into CNN-quality riots in the streets adds to the impression of a constant undercurrent of violence in the capital. Photographs of protestors and petrol bombs contrast the tranquil image of Thailand and its capital as a tourist paradise. These opposing images of Bangkok, a place simultaneously of paradise and nightmare, offer an evocative psychology for writers and filmmakers.
British novelist John Burdett pens hardboiled crime novels that are in many ways the literary kin of Refn’s film. Bangkok 8 (2003), Bangkok Tattoo (2005), and Bangkok Haunts (2007) concoct convoluted storylines from the newspaper headlines. Each features the police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a half-Caucasian, half-Thai inheritor of the Mickey Spillane tough-guy approach to crime fighting (there are two more books featuring this character, but the first three comprise an unofficial trilogy). Burdett’s intricate crime fictions hinge upon the sort of dark and dirty facts of Bangkok life that add touches of the exotic to the crimes. Third-world child prostitution, black magic ritual murder, cross-dressing ladyboy thugs, and imitation Buddhist monks all appear in Burdett’s books.
In the best hard-boiled tradition, his characters walk thin moral lines, the difference between right and wrong often obscured by difficult choices that don’t allow for easy answers. This is not to say that Evil is not present in Burdett’s tales: in Bangkok Haunts the villain is a dead prostitute whose spirits transmigrates to inhabit the body of her younger brother to enact revenge on her killers. Burdett’s adroit use of local superstitions compliments his vivid depictions of the cityscape, the strange sights and sounds, the sunburnt, Singha drunk tourists eating fried grasshoppers from streetside push carts while Arab women in full-face veil, their arms loaded with designer shopping bags, pass them by.
Like Burdett, Refn wisely eschews familiar tourist hotspots and places his action in side street bars and traditional wooden houses, in noodle stalls and coffee shops, which both locals and ex-pat residents frequent. As film critic Wise Kwai pointed out in his review in the English-language Thai newspaper The Nation, of the non-Thai films recently set in Bangkok (Bangkok Dangerous (2008), Hang Over II (2011)), only Only God Forgives creates a sympathetic depiction of the real life of the city. (“Bangkok’s avenging angel”, 26 July 2013) Then again, it’s a joint Thai-Danish production, so maybe the dice were loaded.
But of course, Refn did not set out to shoot a documentary. Infused with this sympathetic depiction, Refn makes use of the pictorial exoticism of the East that Western filmmakers have been exploiting for nearly a century to underpin the psychedelic style of his neo-noir fantasy.
Location shoots for Hollywood films set in the Far East were rare prior to the ‘50s. There are silent films, such as Legong (1935), shot in Bali, that use the tropes of documentary to create fictional stories (and feature plenty of bare-breasted female and male teenage natives for the audience’s pleasure), but most films set in the East were in fact shot on soundstages in Hollywood. The sets were recycled for stories set anywhere from Casablanca to Singapore: so long as they featured slat-shaded windows, Turkish columns, narrow alleys, crowded markets, and men in Fez hats, the set was considered Eastern.
There are exceptions. Lady of the Tropics (1939), a romance tale based on Puccini’s opera Manon Lescaut starring Hedy Lamarr, prominently features footage of a temple dance shot on location in Cambodia. The footage is poorly edited into the film and to modern sensibilities jars badly with the Hollywood soundstages. Later cultural critics such as Gina Marchetti in her study Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (1994) points out that the stock footage spectacle “satisfies the travelogue requirement of Hollywood films set in exotic locales” and helps to encode the Western myths of “seductive” Asian powers and “Oriental opulence” into the film. But it does something more.
The footage transports Western viewers, albeit briefly, into the tropical Far East without the interference of storyline or back-lots sets. The spectacle, perhaps originally shot for newsreel, confirms the strangeness (for Westerners) of the local culture, the complete difference from anything that they could experience at home. It is this perceived “strangeness” that creates the exoticness of films shot on location in Southeast Asia, and which Refn exploits to the maximum (the stock footage also includes music, more on that below).
Modern urban Southeast Asian culture includes mobile phones and multi-lane highways. Opium has been replaced by heroin and speed. But temple dancers in shimmering costumes and barefoot monks striding beside caparisoned elephants, as seen in the 1938 stock footage, are still very much a part of the landscape. In fact, given the skylines of glass-skinned buildings leaning over highways snarled with traffic, their presence is all the more strange than it was back in ‘30s.
With temple dancers and elephants in the streets, Thai culture, specifically as it is distilled in the urban morass of Bangkok, is luridly spectacular by any measure. The famous Erawan Shrine, a near-life sized statute of a shining golden four-headed Buddha, Phra Phrom, a Thai representation of the Hindu god Brahama, ensconced in a multi-colored mirrored spirit house, sits beside the glitzy Grand Hyatt on Ratchadamri Road beneath the Skytrain monorail. Daily crowds of worshippers light incense and place lotus blossoms around the statue, a mere stone’s throw from the glamorous upscale shopping malls with brand name stores like LV and Gucci. This is but one example of how surreal elements (to the Western mind) intrude into otherwise recognizable landscapes. In Bangkok, the convulsions of violence on the street merge with scenes of surreal ritual that is possible in the West only in dreams… or drug reveries… or films.
This surreality brings us to the psychedelic atmosphere of Only God Forgives , which is achieved chiefly through set design, special effects, editing, and music. The word “psychedelic” normally is reserved to describe the hallucinations produced by narcotics, but I am here using the term more loosely as a way to describe the combination of surreal elements with the disorientation and dissociation that narcotic users may experience.
Surreal films have been around since the Surrealism movement of the ‘20s. Psychedelic films first appeared in the ‘60s as reflections of drug use began to appear in mainstream media. In the first instance, the filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s classic 1929 Un Chien Andalou, which he made with Salvador Dali, presents the sort of violence, random associations, and dreamlike juxtapositions that are the hallmark of Surrealism. Later filmmakers, like director Dennis Hopper and producer Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1969) tried to recreate a psychedelic “trip” largely through color filters and snap zoom effects (on blooming flowers, mostly). Later filmmakers would use computer-generated images (CGI) to create cinematic trips that moved away from the corniness of Easy Rider and more closely resembled the lived experience. Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaption of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a prime example.
Editing can also be used to achieve the psychedelic. By reordering the normal grammar of images, a director like Stanley Kubrick in the well-known closing scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), was able to recreate the bizarre illogic of dreams in which the rules of linear time and space cease to exist. However, Kubrick also relied heavily on special effects. With modern digital editing tools, these editing techniques can be enhanced to achieve recreations of the psychedelic that do not need to employ special effects. Last year’s A Field in England, by director Ben Wheatley, which uses mirrors and split-second flash cuts to juxtapose images, is the best example of this approach to psychedelic filmmaking.
When a modern director like Refn chooses a method to create the psychedelic sequences that will best compliment the exotic location of his film, he has a variety of techniques to choose from. In Only God Forgives, Refn smartly zeroes in on wallpaper and other interior decorations in the Thai style: the vibrant patterns, inspired by the abundant tropical vegetation, are simultaneously spiky and luxuriant. The resemblance to the sort of fractal patterns that appear under the influence of psychotropic drugs, of lushness abstracted to the geometric, is unambiguous. Refn packs his interior scenes with such wallpaper patterns to create trippy visuals without using any CGI or other special effects.
Several scenes shot on location in karaoke bars are evocative of a black-light wonderland. The efflorescent of fake flowers strewn with fairy lights beside women decked out in formal dresses seated on faux-Louis XIII furniture form an interior image that is reminiscent of the improbable juxtapositions of surrealism. The effect on the audience is of dissociation, which opens room for the symbolic violence that dominates the story.
Several critics have compared Refn’s film to Gaspar Noe’s visually stunning Enter the Void (2009), set in Tokyo’s seedy Kabukicho district of neon lights and sex joints. The comparison is shallow. Whereas Enter the Void relies almost entirely on CGI to create the swirling psychedelic ambience, the techniques that Refn employs are far more traditional. In Only God Forgives, he uses classic film noir techniques like chiaroscuro lighting, tight framing, and limited camera movement (and a saturated yet closely controlled color palette) along with non-linear editing to attain his psychedelic mode.
The director whom Refn seems to look to the most in Only God Forgives is the Malaysian-Chinese Tsai Ming-liang. Ming-liang uses tightly composed framing and lack of camera movement to create visual images that slowly saturate the mind. I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, his 2006 exploration of solitude and sexual frustration among the fringe population of modern Kuala Lumpur, and his shadowy 1992 Rebels of the Neon God, offer the most obvious parallels to Refn’s study of Bangkok. Ming-liang’s camera is drawn to the minimal and abstract elements of urban spaces, such as empty concrete lots and shallow pools. As the unmoving camera lingers on these mundane sights (whose objective correlatives are the inner lives of the characters), they evoke an uncanniness that crosses into the surreal: it almost feels like we’ve had this dream before, of familiar architecture rendered strange, and of strangers who become familiar.
Many of the long takes in Refn’s film evoke a similar response, and when juxtaposed with the exotic location and psychedelic set-design and editing, his film achieves a visual style that is unique. When that style is applied to a noir storyline, the merging of the two genres is achieved.
A discussion of Refn’s achievement in accentuating the psychedelic-noir subgenre would not be complete with a brief analysis of the film’s soundtrack. From his 2011 film, the commercially successful Drive, Refn brings back musician and composer Cliff Martinez. In the previous film, Martinez crafted washes of electronic sound that mostly added atmosphere to the scenes. For Only God Forgives he also uses non-electronic instruments and, importantly, incorporates elements of Thai music to enhance the exoticness of the visuals.
This is not a new trick. The stock footage of Cambodia used in Lady of the Tropics also features music from the temple dance, gongs and bells, hand-drums and bamboo flutes. The sound is an important marker of the exotic (one that later critics ignore when discussing the footage). Much like the images on the screen, the music also transports the viewer to the Far East, enhancing the difference between East and West. Not only the instruments but the harmony and rhythms are completely alien to the audience. In fact, other than food, music may be the most obvious way to experience the differences between cultures (food and music are the most sensual, penetrating, arts).
In the late ‘30s, it was difficult to hear such music outside of Southeast Asia, so the footage in Lady of the Tropics presented a rare opportunity for filmgoers of the time. Today, of course, a quick search on YouTube can deliver it directly to anyone in the world. When Refn and Martinez come to use elements of Thai music in the soundtrack to Only God Forgives, that have to bear in mind the fact that perhaps many in their Western audience would already have been exposed to Thai music (perhaps even from other films set in Bangkok). The danger would be to use Thai music not to accentuate the psychedelic-noir atmosphere of the film but merely as an audio marker of the exotic (as it was used the Lady of the Tropics).
In an interview with PopMatters about creating the soundtrack to Only God Forgives, Martinez explains that he travelled to Thailand to imbibe the musical culture. (“Getting Good at Getting Dark: An Interview with Cliff Martinez”) While the soundtrack only features one distinctly Thai instrument (the three-stringed phin), the rhythms and harmonies maintain the Thai influence while revisiting the dark, minimal electronic soundscapes he used on Drive. The outcome is a soundtrack that, even when heard without watching the movie, creates an aural ambience evocative of the exotic sounds of Thai music as well as the dark, swirling atmosphere of classic noir films.
All told, Refn’s mise-en-scene, his use of visual and audio elements to create a psychedelic-noir atmosphere that coheres around the exoticness of Bangkok, can be considered a major achievement, one that points the way for filmmakers who want to further explore the subgenre. Regarding style and mood, Only God Forgives is a success and deserves that standing ovation.
So why was the film booed at Cannes?
Sex and Violence and Jodorowsky
Where Refn enhances the noir genre in his innovative use of the psychedelic and exotic, he completely falls down on story and character. Since noir is based not only on style but also on narrative, and since authors like John Burdett have successfully transplanted hard-boiled fiction to a Bangkok setting, it’s useful to see where Refn’s attempt went sideways.
Refn dedicated this film to Alejandro Jodorowsky, the creator of psychedelic art house darlings El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973). From Jodorowsky’s approach to film making, Refn takes the use of symbolism and archetypes. Critics are correct to note that audiences find it difficult to relate to characters that are archetypes, and it is here that his film begins to unravel.
The key archetype in Only God Forgives is Chang, a Thai police superintendent with god-like powers of moral judgment, played with icy intensity by Vithaya Pansringarm. Dressed in a starched, short-sleeved black two-piece suit with a bleached white collar that vaguely resembles a priest’s soutane, he moves through the film like a spectral presence, more gliding than walking.
Refn attempts to present violence on screen in the same way that Jodorowsky presented nudity in Magic Mountain: as a symbol largely divorced from lived experience but also not provided sheerly for entertainment. The symbol straddles the line between metaphor and lived experience.
Chang’s sword is a symbol completely divorced from reality. It’s not even clear where he carries it, as it simply seems to emerge from behind his neck (does he have it taped to his back?). With the sword he removes hands, which present the other main symbol of the film. Hands are the tools used to enact moral choice, so it is hands that Chang chops off.
The moral choices in the film are embodied in the character of Julian, played by Ryan Gosling, who starred as a stone-faced getaway driver on a caper gone wrong in Drive. In that film, he imitated the automaton-like psychological blank that Ryan O’Neal created in the lead role of Walter Hill’s Los Angeles noir fantasia The Driver (1978), an appropriate mix of man and machine who only comes alive when he drives.
In Only God Forgives, Gosling’s creepy performance as Julian is all done in his body (not even the voice, which is rarely used). He moves like a beaten boy, and once we meet the overbearing, sexually and verbally abusive mother Crystal, played pitch perfect by Kristin Scott Thomas, we understand why. Mommy is a femme fatale, a drug running murderess. The whiff of incest is strong.
Julian’s mask hides emotional confusion, the body movements the perpetual pain of abuse. It is revealed that Crystal asked Julian to murder his own father with his bare hands, and we learn that he did so. Gosling’s character’s movements are only fluid when he fights: otherwise, he portrays the leaden shuffle and slack muscles of the defeated. This presents a neat contrast to the celebrity’s gym-toned body, which is tightened and torqued almost to the point of popping.
Despite the sexy leading man, there is surprising little intimacy on screen. To shoot a film set in the seedy underbelly of Bangkok and to not show a single bare breast demonstrates remarkable restraint on behalf of the director. Moments that could lead to sex often instead lead to violence and this metaphorical slide symbolically depicts the moral dilemma of the main character. In a classic noir hero move, Julian chooses to defend innocence, here symbolized by the young daughter of his nemesis, which creates a neat parallel with the action that started the narrative: his brother’s rape and murder of a 16-year-old prostitute.
The most disturbing scene converges the violence with the archetypes: Julian cuts open his dead mother’s womb and places his hand inside. It’s disgusting but the symbolism is structured and the scene is not meant to be thrilling. The moral complexity of the character and the metaphorical weight of the symbol are completed by this all-too-literal return to the womb. The hands that killed his father are now embedded in the body that birthed him. At the end of the film, Chang will cut off those hands (the psychedelic dream sequences foreshadow the ending).
Despite the resolution of the symbolism, the scene is grotesque and utterly gratuitous. It is almost impossible to defend it against charges of pretentiousness and self-indulgence. People who thought they were in for a stylish re-hash of Drive set in Bangkok would be grossed out if not simply offended by such a scene and the director should have known to anticipate his audience’s threshold for taboo. (Apparently the idea originated with Gosling, who meant it as a joke. (See “The Mysterious Bromance of Ryan Gosling and His ‘Only God Forgives’ Director Nicolas Winding Refn”” by Michael Arbeiter, Hollywood, 19 July 2013)
Audiences want a hero, even an anti-hero. Whether a stone faced get-away driver like Gosling’s character in Drive, or a half-Caucasian, half-Thai cop that Burdett offers in his Bangkok novels, audiences want someone they can hang onto for the duration of the narrative ride. With only a little less need to experiment with narrative, if he had driven his stylish film with character and story instead of archetype and symbol, Refn probably could have had a hit.
It’s difficult to create weirdness as a coherent aesthetic mode across a feature length film, and if measured only by the application of formal techniques to the creation mood and genre, Only God Forgives is a major success. However, marrying the darkness of noir to the multi-hued disorientation of the psychedelic will inevitably concoct a bad trip. Bad trips are by definition not fun, and films that follow such an objective will always have a limited audience. Much like Jodorowsky’s movies, Refn’s film may yet prove to be a cult hit, watched by film geeks late at night. But given his ambition and the possibilities Only God Forgives could have achieved, such an outcome can only be described as rotten.
William L. Gibson’s novel Singapore Black, the first in a trilogy of hard-boiled crime fiction set in 1890s Malaya, is now available from Monsoon Books. He is Academic Coordinator and Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at SAE Institute, Jakarta. Learn more at www.williamlgibson.com.