*Obviously this contains spoilers so if you have not seen the film, see it first and then come back.*
Pink has once defined polarizing art as “either absolutely love or absolutely can’t-be-around-for-more-than-three-seconds.” This is most recently true with a film such as Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Only God Forgives’ from 2013. The movie revolves around a drug smuggler who tries to get revenge for his brother’s death. It has had a really polarized reaction, especially at Cannes where the film received BOTH booing and a standing ovation. Critics were also split on the film with some such as Wesley Morris saying the movie is a “one-dimensional video game of death.” and some such as Garry McConnachie calling it a “nightmarish and minimalist work of art”. Personally, I believe that Only God Forgives is a brilliant film that uses amazing symbolism and fantastic techniques with the lighting, for example to tell its story and get into the character’s heads.
Throughout ‘Only God Forgives’, we see a lot of symbolism, mostly religious. Nicolas Winding Refn was inspired to make the movie when his wife was pregnant with their second child. He has a lot of anger and stress to vent and actually saw this film as himself having a physical fight with God. Throughout the film, there is a lot of religious symbolism to display this point vividly. For example, look at the use of color in the film. In Julian’s boxing club and his room, we see the room is either covered in red or there is something red in that room. It can be argued that the red represents a form of Hell. This is really significant and really fascinating because Refn reverses the roles, with the protagonist being the antagonist as well.
He also reverses the gender roles with Crystal, Julian’s mother. Refn makes her a Lady Macbeth-type character with such strong will and an ability to push Julian around, saying such things to him as, “you’re right. I don’t understand you. And I never will.” Regardless of what he does to him, Julian still honours her. This is best shown when Mai, Julian’s date, asks why Julian puts up with her and he just says “she’s my mother.” Regardless of what he does to him, Julian still honours her. Crystal seems to symbolize a Satan figure in the film because of her power and ability to manipulate those such as Julian as well as her complete lack of care for anyone and anything. She is essentially a sociopath, which is seen when Julian tries to tell her of Julian’s brother, Billy’s crime that got him killed and Crystal says, “I’m sure he had his reasons.”
Another major character in the film is the police officer, Chang. Chang is a very interesting being who seems to symbolize a God-like figure, but he seems to symbolize a more vengeful God. He has compassion and wants to destroy corruption, but he wants to do this in a very brutal fashion. For example, in the beginning of the film, Chang allows the father of the prostitute Billy killed to kill Billy. After this though, Chang punishes the father for his actions of taking advantage of his daughters and murders him. This gives us an idea as to Chang’s mission as well as how violent and vengeful he is. Despite all of this though, he does not murder Julian for his revenge quest for Billy, but instead cuts off Julian’s hands. Chang does not do this because he seems to know his mother was solely responsible for everything, hence why he killed her instead of Julian. This shows that Chang, a symbol for God, knows how confused Julian is and briefly punishes him for his actions, but forgives him, hence the film’s title.
Julian is a very fascinating character to watch transform. He is a very confused character throughout the whole film. At first, he realizes what his brother did is wrong, which is best shown when he argues getting revenge for Billy with Crystal by telling her what Billy did, saying, “it’s more complicated than that.” Julian knows his brother’s actions were horrible and does not want to avenge someone like him. As the film goes on, he starts to become fascinated with Chang and eventually asks to fight with him. This fight represents what Refn wanted from the start. Julian’s questioning of his mother, Billy’s death and everything leads to his anger rising until he wants to fight God. Julian losing the epic, six minute fight, with some of Cliff Martinez’s finest music yet, represents not just the power Chang (God) has, but also how weak Julian has become with all of his anger and sin. Julian losing his hands is him asking for forgiveness from God and getting punished for what he did. Julian’s character pretty much symbolizes Refn and his inspiration for making the film.
Only God Forgives has a lot of material in it and a lot of heavy symbolism for just one viewing. Refn uses religious symbolism to make his point about how he wanted to fight God using Crystal as Satan, Chang as God and Julian as the common man who questions everything. The film is beautiful and brilliant with such thought provoking ideas and a lot to really challenge the mind. At first, I was polarized by the film, but after a second viewing, the film feels like a perfect counterpart to Drive and is now one of my new favourite films.