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Sydney Film Festival Review: 'Only God Forgives'



18 June 2013

Only God Forgives
Nicholas Winding Refn's latest film, Only God Forgives (Image: Spr2, used under the Creative Commons licence CC-BY-SA-3.0).

"It is extremely beautiful; it is extremely violent." It was with these words that Sydney Film Festival director Nashen Moodley introduced Saturday night's screening of Only God Forgives, the latest feature from Danish-born director Nicolas Winding Refn. The film, which was announced the following morning as the winner of the Festival's official competition, polarised critics at its premiere last month in Cannes, its supporters deeming it to be "very beautiful", its detractors, "very violent."

Beauty, violence: how to reconcile the two? Entire critical traditions have articulated these contradictory positions and their attitude towards ethics and aesthetics in cinematic representations. A 1960 review in the famous French film journal Cahiers du Cinema memorably moralised the issue, excoriating Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo for aestheticising suicide with a tracking shot in his dubious concentration camp drama, Kapo. How to best treat one's subject, be it death, love, politics, or anything else, has not diminished in importance or complexity since that heady period of film criticism, and a work like Only God Forgives is a testament to this fact.

Refn's film is loosely held together by a series of murders in Bangkok's criminal underworld. A particularly broody and tight-lipped Ryan Gosling plays the lead role of Julian, the owner of a Muay Thai boxing club, which is a front for his family's drug dealing business. When his violently unhinged brother, Billy, is murdered at the behest of Chang, the head of the local police, a plot is hatched to avenge his death. Julian's equally unstable mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), urges him to take matters into his own hands, but is forced to hire local thugs to do the job after Julian refuses to cooperate. What follows is a series of bloody confrontations between police, locals, and an American family; few survive.

As in Drive - Refn's previous film with Gosling - Only God Forgives proceeds with a bare minimum of dialogue, the sole exception being Kristin Scott Thomas' alternately profane and impassioned pleas as the family matriarch. The silence leaves space for visual and aural atmospherics, which carry the film. Much of the film is set in a dazzling neon red brothel, replete with impossibly long mirrors and corridors with ornate baroque trimmings. While the soundtrack is perhaps less memorable than in his previous works, the film is punctuated by several quite beguiling karaoke scenes, which strangely enough make up the most hypnotic - and best - sequences in the film.

While Refn deserves the praise he has received for his approach to sound and production design, the problem lies in the relationship between these stylistic choices to the subject matter. As I reflect on Refn's silent characters drifting through the streets of Bangkok from one increasingly brutal murder to another, I can't shake the feeling of uneasiness (or perhaps more accurately, nausea) arising at various moments in the film, which remained with me at the closing credits. One gets the impression that Refn would like to treat everything we see with the same degree of aesthetic care, an egalitarian approach that some may applaud. Should we aestheticise violence in cinema? There may not be a simple answer. What I am sure of is that attempts to erase the line between beauty and violence are fraught with risk; they often do little more than highlight their insolubility.

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