Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Space Oddities: Only God Forgives (2013) Film Review

Fig 1: Film poster

Nicolas Winding Refn’s movie “Only God Forgives” (2013) is seen by most as the Marmite of cinema – a film that is either celebrated for it’s uniqueness and bold character, or heavily criticized for the non existence of an orderly plot, strange personalities of it’s characters and putrid violent scenes.
However, Refn indeed intended for this movie to not be slotted into a particular genre of film. Yes, there may be violence and action, but it is not portrayed in the way you would expect. Upon viewing, the atmosphere of  “Only God Forgives” is ethereal, plus sits on the perimeter of familiar human actions and settings. Jesse Cataldo describes the start of the film: “...starts out in hell, then pushes even further into demonic darkness” (Cataldo, 2013); a film not shy to delve the viewer immediately into it’s strange world. Peter Bradshaw also goes on to explain: “It has its own miasma of anxiety and evil, taking place in a universe of fear” (Bradshaw, 2013) indeed, the world of this film is shrouded in a mist of anxiety and feeling on edge as to what will happen next.

Figs 2 & 3: An example of mood lighting

A notable factor are the strong colours and mood lighting of scenes. These are also very closely related Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” (1977) in which the whole scene is lit with a saturated single or combination of contrasting colours. This impacts on the mood and suspense of the scene, aided by the intense music that also can be derived from “Suspiria”.  Otherwise dimly lit, these saturated colours also induce the feeling of other worldliness, as in this present moment, all are conscious that the real world isn’t constantly lit with bright colours.

Another major organ that gives this film life are the outrageous violent scenes that don’t seem to make sense. Cataldo describes it as: “...sadistically couching its brutality within a high-style pictorialism that's both hard to watch and difficult to look away from” (Cataldo, 2013) In agreement to this statement, this movie does not shy away from the gory scenes, but they are depicted in such a way that the viewer has a need to keep watching with fascination.
Fig 4: The blank expression

Adding to the ethereal feel of  Only God Forgives”, most to all characters hold a blank facial expression and often stare at each other. As well as this, very little dialogue is spoken throughout. These elements create a sense of confusion, uneasiness and anticipation of something loud to come about. Refn also provides slow, panning camera movement to compliment the sometime seemingly slow motion movement of the characters – and what can be noticed here is a link to God like characteristics; for example, holy, high power figures are often depicted as almost dainty and move slowly to show they are in control. This slow movement that is seen with each character could also suggest that each one has a God inside them. 

Fig 5: Hands

Hands and arms – scenes of these body parts are introduced throughout – to Chang slicing off Choi’s hand to Julian (Ryan Gosling) looking at his hands and washing them. It’s quite a mystery as to why there is a focus on the hands and arms, but one interpretation can be the masculinity of the male characters, and that being “sliced off”.

Fig 6: Crystal

Particular ruthless scenes of  Only God Forgives” include the murder of Julians “cartoonishly cruel mother” (Cataldo, 2013) and Julian slicing her abdomen to put his hand inside. Whilst doing so, flash backs of his favourite prostitute appear and he remembers her touching herself and him putting his hand into her private area, so when entering his hand within his mother there is a sickening connotation to this memory.
   Before her death, Crystal openly demeans her son Julian, discussing that his genitelia where smaller than the rest of his brothers, and that Julian is seemingly happy that his older brother was murdered. When asked why Julian accepts the torments, he simply replies “because she’s my mother”. This suggests that the only female he could really be close to was his mother; backed up also that he was tied up by Mai so he won’t touch her.
   The  “antagonist”, Chang can be seen as the God of this film – controlling the plot and having followers beside him. He also carries around a broken sword and mercilessly slays whoever is in his way, making people fear him. Julian also has visions that his arms are cut off by Chang, and so Chang also mentally makes his presence known in the characters.

Fig 7: Chang and the iconic sword

The film has a understandably bizarre and confusing plot; Based in Bangkok, Julains elder brother murders a prostitute, but is himself killed by the father. His mother flies over to identify the body, meets Mai and Julian and brutally demeans her son and she authorizes the killing of Choi as revenge. Crystal also learns that Chang was part of her sons murder and plans his assassination, but in the end she is killed herself. Charlie Ling is intent of killing Chang's family,  but Julian shoots him before he shoots the young daughter. A small sense of humanity is shown here. Julian once again has a vision that Chang slices his arms off, and the film ends in an almost comical Karaoke session, where Chang sings slightly off key in front of an audience of police officers.

Understandably, Refn created a film that is mind boggling, violent and seemingly makes no sense, yet the environment and strong cinematography indeed make up for these elements. After witnessing “Only God Forgives” its true that it doesn’t fit into a particular genre, and even more so, it will not leave you for a long time. 


Bradshaw, P. (2013) The Guardian, (Accessed on 08/12/2015) http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/aug/01/only-god-forgives-review
Cataldo, J. (2013) Slant Magazine, (Accessed on 08/12/2015) http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/only-god-forgives 

Illustration List: 

Fig 7: "Chang and the iconic sword" (Accessed on 08/12/2015) https://thegreatob.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/chang.jpg