J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives

Evidently, expat Julian Thompson had a spot of legal trouble back home.  He and his drug-running brother Billy now assume Bangkok is their oyster and act accordingly.  However, Thompson might just miss those coppers with their due process.  The family business will get decidedly ugly in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Julian is the sensitive Thompson brother.  He runs the legit side of their Muay Thai boxing club front and keeps his regular prostitute Mai on-call, even though he never fully avails himself of her services, if you get the drift.  Billy Thompson was always their mother’s favorite.  Unfortunately, he is now dead, but he sure had it coming.

After raping and killing an under-aged prostitute, the elder Thompson brother was locked in a room with her guilt ridden father, who knew what to do.  Chang was the one who told him to.  The mysterious retired police officer still seems to call all the shots on the Bangkok force.  Although he sometimes appears eerily bad-assed, Chang is probably just a metaphorical “Angel of Death.”  Of course, Thompson is just as dead either way.

Given the circumstances of his brother’s death, little Julian has trouble ginning-up sufficient outrage to seek vengeance.  This is not the case for their Oedipus Complex-on-wheels mother, Crystal.  She blows into town like a hurricane, determined to avenge her preferred son.  Crystal will also take every opportunity to mess with Julian’s head, while re-asserting control of her far-flung illicit businesses.  Killing a cop is no big deal to her, but Chang is no ordinary flatfoot.

For what it’s worth, Only is nowhere near the train wreck Cannes reviewers made it out to be.  The film has its memorable moments and performances.  Yet, there is no denying Winding Refn’s approach is rather self-indulgent.  There are so many long slow David Lynchian shots of empty hallways, viewers will half expect the giant and the dwarf to eventually pop out of a door.  There is also an oppressively misogynistic vibe to the film.  Thai actress Ratha Phongam is a lovely woman, who does what she can with Mai’s pencil thin character, but the way the Thompsons treat her is rather appalling—and she gets off easy compared to others.

Of course, some might call Crystal Thompson a strong female character.  That is certainly true, but a foul mouthed, sexually manipulative, woman-hating, sociopathic mommy-monster should not exactly constitute a feminist role model.  Kristin Scott Thomas is rather awe-inspiring in the role, hardening her tart-tongued imperious image in a forge of Hellfire.

To the film’s credit, it finally finds Ryan Gosling’s comfort range: sullen and emasculated. The film also delivers vicarious payback during Julian’s massive beatdown scene.  Audiences will start to cheer in their heads “that was for the interminable Blue Valentine and that was for the pretentious The Place Beyond the Pines, and that was for its ridiculously awkward title.”

Frankly though, Vithaya Pansringarm is the star of the film, following-up his breakout performance as the murder-solving Buddhist monk in Tom Waller’s Mindfulness and Murder.  An intensely righteous screen presence, his Chang is like a Dirty Harry with a divine mandate.  As the president of the Thailand Kendo Club, he also swings a sword with authority.

Throughout Only, Winding Refn’s directorial hand is so heavy it nearly crushes everyone on screen, except KST and Pansringarm—they never wilt.  Too laborious and too stylized, it still serves as a dramatic showcase for its fine supporting players.  Only recommended as a curiosity piece for cult film veterans, Only God Forgives opens today (7/19) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

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