Only God Forgives

This film is an ambiguous construction, not unlike its Bangkok setting. The narrative unfolds almost entirely in the Chinatown (Yaowarat) district of Bangkok, and is about an American expatriate in Thailand who, at the behest of his mother, seeks to avenge the death of his recently slain brother. Because of this drawn out excursion into the seedy elements of Chinatown from the Western imaginary of fear, we know almost nothing about the city itself. The movie does not seek to explore Bangkok or the everyday tensions of this particular global city, or what kind of people live there, but quickly diverges into a binary of two male regimes of power. It is the worst of Western anxieties: that alongside the fleeting orientalism that once imagined a friendly Thai smile, the Western protagonist, who was either indifferent soldier (Apocalypse Now) or privileged tourist (The Beach), is no longer in control of the encounter. Before they ever meet in the film, Julian (played by Ryan Gosling) imagines the conclusion of his time in Thailand and the actual final scene of the film where the far superior Chang (played by Vithaya Pansringarm) slices of his hands. This image invades his perception even as he seeks pleasurable encounters with his exotic dancer girlfriend, Mai (played by Rhatha Phongam). The Western, now in the position of vulnerability, is no longer entitled to put their hands on the domestic bodies. While this element shows up in Thai films like Ong Bak, and others which reasserted male identity against the trauma of the Asian Financial Crisis, this is the first film by a foreign director to disclose a new world order. The West, now facing its own financial crisis, is now on the decline. Kong Rithdee probably provides the best summation of the film when he says, “Seeing OGF, unsuspecting foreigners would change their destination to Pyongyang.” However, Rithdee’s assertion overlooks the fact that this film is not just about Bangkok, but about a filmmaker’s attempt to re-map the landscape of the Western gaze within the context of contemporaneous Western decline. It is not, as the reviewer claims, an attempt to match the “existential” insight of prior Western texts (e.g., Apocalypse Now or Brokedown Palace).

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At the aesthetic level, the film is about sound, and the art of listening often lost in the historic encounter between East and West. In a significant scene, Ryan Gosling’s character, Julian, never responds to any of the outlandish lines of his overbearing mother. He simply listens, as if to prove that orientalism is not simply a patriarchal regime, but also a psychoanalytical complex passed between “motherland” and its offspring. Julian, and his murdered brother Billy, are the unfortunate byproducts of this complex. With instructions from their mother, they drug, rape, and pillage the city. Around his mother, Julian can only listen silently. After Julian’s girlfriend, Mai, asks why he doesn’t stand up for himself in front of the oppressive mother, he forces her to undress along the sidewalk of a mid-evening Bangkok street. Her nakedness is testament to ways the Western motherland has stripped the East of its ability to express an indigenous and empowered femininity. In the film, Thai women are either prostitutes, hostesses, or exotic dancers who entertain delinquent Western patrons. In this sense, their subjugation gives justification for the underworld violence of the Thai police. This extralegal conflict between two masculine regimes, inspired by the vulnerable female body, suggests that both forms of patriarchy are failures. There are many other significant turns in the way this film thinks about bodies, for example, in the scene where Julian enters his hand into the stabbed womb of his mother. It could be read as either Julian entering the fleeting territory of the motherland one last time or, more likely, destroying the womb—one of two sources of his own subjugation, more completely. In the end, the only empowered subject is the one who speaks. Everyone else, including the film viewer whose senses are moved by an elaborate Badalamenti-like sound design, is a listener.

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Such are the processes through which the foreign motherland gives way to the native patriarchy. Chang heads the dark underworld of police violence—represented as a somewhat essentialist manifestation of karma. The audience hears what the Western criminal cannot, the beckoning of the periodic Luk Thung Thai folk song that warns us—not unlike the chorus of a Greek tragedy—who the central heroes are. Chang is a chorus of one, singing the song of the city: justice. In a central scene, the film’s most brutal, Chang holds hostage the minions of Julian’s mother after learning of their plot to assassinate him. The hostess women are told to shut their eyes as Chang borrows several hair ties to stab a Western club owner, who acts as though he can’t understand Chang’s request, in Thai language, for the details of the plot. The girls are told to cover their eyes. The man is stabbed in the eyes, thereby taking his vision. His hearing will remain intact. The scene blends into one of Chang on stage singing his song of justice. This is the singing that ends the film as the credits begin to roll. The chorus of Oedipus the King thus observed, “whereof men’s ears may not hear, nor their eyes behold it” (1313-4). In the end, the global viewer scattered across thousands of theaters is inspired to listen to what the film does not necessarily show. The conditions of the global encounter are no longer stacked in favor of the West.

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