From famous Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (DRIVE) comes this tale of revenge set in the underworld of Bangkok. Despite not being an actuak martial arts action film, Refn knows how to shoot fights as seen in two sequences and has the potential to do what most A-listers have the inability to do when they shoot martial arts action.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) is the owner of a local Thai boxing gym in Bangkok. However, he is not just a gym owner. He is also a gangster who years ago, killed his father with his bare hands. This led him to Bangkok, where he is involved in a drug running operation led by his own mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). When he learns of his older brother’s death, he finds his life has become more complicated.
While Crystal commands Julian to find and kill the ones who killed his brother, Julian cannot find himself to do so. The reason is that the killers were not only a top ranking rival criminal, but a sadistic and corrupt police officer named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). As Julian finds himself torn between revenge and redemption, Crystal begins to start a war with the rival gang. Finally, Julian decides the only way he can settle the score with Chang is to challenge him to a one-on-one fight.
Nicolas Winding Refn is quite the director. Gaining a major following with his PUSHER trilogy, he made a major switch to Hollywood with DRIVE, which was a breakthrough role for former child star Ryan Gosling. The former Mouseketeer and the Danish director re-team for this film set in the criminal underworld of Bangkok. What is interesting is not only Gosling having much dialogue, but the amazing use of visuals in the film. Gosling’s Julian can be seen many times in a dark room with a visual as if he is constantly in confession in church, hence a meaning to the film’s title. Refn’s visual tactics further enhance the underworld of Bangkok’s “red-light districts”, which are shot with a red color filter.
The highlight of the film is Officer Chang, played with sadistic charm by veteran Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm. It is clear he is not only a dirty cop, but one who takes very extreme measures for interrogation. Armed usually with a sword, he is quite handy with anything sharp. In one very disturbing scene, he interrogates one of Crystal’s men by turning him into a human torture rack that would make fans of films like SAW and HOSTEL root him on. After appearing in smaller roles in films like THE HANGOVER PART II, the role of Chang is definitely Pansringarm’s breakout role. He recently made a cameo in Isaac Florentine’s upcoming NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR as a corrupt general in Burma who interrogates in Chang-style against Scott Adkins’ Casey. It is as if he channeled his role here and brought it to the Florentine film.
Kristin Scott Thomas can be viewed as a villainess of the film in her role of gangster Crystal. While there is no real protagonist in the film, Thomas brings a sense of craziness in a motherly type of fashion. She constantly berates Julian for not only not doing his job to find his brother’s killer, but goes as far as constantly saying how jealous Julian is of his brother, even in front of Julian’s girlfriend Mai, played by Thai actress Yayaying Rhatha Phongnam.
Which brings us to the very few action scenes. Refn could be a filmmaker who, if he ever decides to make a full-blooded martial arts film, can make it work in terms of shooting action. An opening fight sequence between two Muay Thai boxers is shot very well with the use of long shots and overhead shots. Those expecting quite a fight between Julian and Chang will be somewhat disappointed as Julian only gets less than two shots with Chang constantly beating the bejesus out of him. As Chang shows his power, it juxtaposes with a statue of a Thai boxer. However, Refn brings a sense of realism into this fight sequence. Realism is something not too often seen in martial arts fights in films. However, Refn makes it quite watchable using the right camera angles and editing techniques, even if the fight is one-sided. That’s why should Refn ever do a full-on martial arts film, he truly proves he has done his homework.
ONLY GOD FORGIVES is not a martial arts film per se, but Refn’s visuals combined with the two actual fight sequences in the film and the breakout performance of Vithaya Pansringarm make this a somewhat decent film from the Danish director. One can only hope he will one day do a full martial arts film because he definitely has the potential to do one.