Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding Refn

Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding
Refn

Julian, a drug-smuggler thriving in Bangkok’s criminal underworld, sees his life get complicated when his mother
compels him to find and kill whoever is responsible for his brother’s recent death. Chang, a Thai police lieutenant, is exacting his own brand of vigilante justice and punishing everybody involved.

Only God Forgives is the classic case of a director doing a continuation of his authorial style. An aesthetic that was recognized in a previously successful film is further explored in a more extreme fashion in a follow-up piece. Very often it’s focused on using the established cinematic style to carry the entire movie. Wong Kar Wai made Fallen Angels after the success of Chungking Express. David Lynch made Inland Empire after the success of Muholland Drive. Terrence Malick made To the Wonder after Tree of Life.

Only God Forgives is Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylistic continuation of Drive. What’s stripped away is the frequent plot turns, traditional character development and character likability. These are probably the most quiet cinematic gangsters I’ve ever seen in my life. Characters are posed like empty vessels. They don’t talk much. Sometimes when they do, the director mutes their dialogue. Ryan Gosling plays a still taciturn character in a similar way he did in Drive. Kristin Scott Thomas is an effective threatening presence as Julian’s stern mother Crystal. There’s very little to draw from Gosling’s Julian, but it is there. Even within it’s morally ambiguous world, there is a clear character arc. Julian is an active character trying to find redemption but also wants to please his mother. Which leads to me to the Chang character…

Nicolas Winding Refn has said the Lieutenant Chang character represents the Old Testament God, exacting judgment and punishment on all the sinners in the story. I am not sure how clear that is in the film unless the audience read the press notes beforehand. Does the God theme really matter? In a way, yes. The film is so stoic with its characters posed like figurines, you cannot help but inject symbolism into the film’s empty canvas to derive meaning out of it. Trying to watch this film as a genre crime thriller, which is what it is on the surface, would be relatively more frustrating. Luckily I caught on to it.

The Chang character, in a perpetual black shirt with a white collar, is dressed like a priest. He is a violent enforcer of poetic justice, and all his actions are ritual-like. In a more traditional movie, Chang would have been the protagonist. Here, he’s the antagonist. From the story’s perspective, where all the characters are varyingly degrees of bad, it’s as if Chang is the Grim Reaper coming to collect souls even though he in fact is a force for good. That’s a really interesting left-field story choice and I dug that. Lieutenant Chang is the most fascinating character and a great antagonist.

There is an indulgent aspect to Only God Forgives, any director taking on big questions will naturally come off that way. Refn could have easily written a theology thesis but he’s chosen to express his thoughts with narrative film. I have no problem with that but it automatically sets up qualifiers for audiences to enjoy the film. While it is not necessary, I think having viewed Drive first will help one familiarize with Refn’s film language before seeing this movie. As for the God themes, it can go either which way. Some may find it pretentious, but I found images from the film stuck with me long after and I am still pondering the film’s themes. I found the Julian and Chang characters compelling. So for that, Only God Forgives is neither the masterpiece nor disaster that all the Cannes hype is suggesting, but more of a hyper-stylized personal statement. It will surely divide audiences, and your enjoyment will depend on how you deal with abstractions.

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Prometheus by Ridley Scott

Prometheus by Ridley Scott

In the late 21st century, the crew of the spaceship Prometheus follow a star map discovered among the artifacts of several ancient Earth cultures. Seeking the origins of humanity, the crew arrives on a distant world and discovers a threat that could cause the extinction of the human race.

First off, I am proud to say I was not a victim of all the hype and it was definitely a much better film-going experience having not having seen the film with too much worked out in my mind. Now on with the review…

Awe is a very important component for science fiction films. Thematically science fiction deals with both the potential and limit of mankind, reflecting who we are as human beings if there were no bounds to our ability to accomplish good or heinous things. For example, seeing a spaceship soaring through space or a planet get blown up should both evoke awe. From frame one I was instantly awed by the world created in Prometheus. Using real physical sets and locations over computer generated ones really makes a big difference. I was marveled by the space of the world and was ready to explore it along with its characters. Thanks, H.R. Giger!

It’s been a while since we had a true science fiction film asking big questions. Does God exist? Who am I? Who made me? Why did he make me? How would he see me? Every character represents in the story a different argument against all these questions. Although we are given a conclusion for all these questions on a narrative level, the film never really provides an answer to its big thematic questions and I loved that.

This is one of Rapace’s better-suited parts that I have seen her play as she has a lot more emotions to play compared to a role like Lisbeth Salander. Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw is not “Ellen Ripley Deux”, she is clearly playing her own original character. If there are any similarities, it’s that they’re both well-rounded female characters that both show moments of vulnerability and strength.

Michael Fassbender is captivating as the android character David and interprets playing a robot creatively through physical choices. A delicate weightless walk, a constant neutral tone to his voice and facial expressions that don’t quite match what’s being said. The audience is left constantly guessing, “What is he up to? Is he being deceitful? Was that a joke or did he really mean that?” He plays up the ambiguous non-human nature of a machine and adds to a lot of the mystery of what’s going on in this world.

As a side note, is the Blade Runner sequel from Ridley Scott necessary at this point? The “can a robot be human?” theme established in this film can be totally explored possibly in sequels with the David character.

There’s been a very common complaint about how the characters act very unscientific for a group of scientists. I have thought about this argument even though it didn’t occur to me upon my first viewing because I was absorbed into the film. I will say this as a counter argument: Prometheus, as the title suggests, is a cautionary tale. The characters are meant to do all the wrong things and pay for it. It’s a rule of the genre, it’s the equivalent of someone checking an odd noise in the attic in a horror movie. Now you might say that that’s not an excuse for bad characterization, I agree. But if people are noticing stuff like this, I think the movie probably failed to engage you on some level. It was not the case for me and I didn’t have a problem with it.

What will ultimately divide audiences about Prometheus is the fact that it is a movie embedded with dual goals in its DNA. There’s the Alien prequel and the Prometheus movie. Personally I was much more fascinated with the Prometheus portion. Some may think that Prometheus does not answer enough questions about Alien. I agree and disagree. It does provide you answers about the events in Alien but it gives it to you in the form of creating more questions. Personally, I would have preferred fewer answers. I’m more interested in the questions.

Bring on Prometheus 2!