The narrative has only a main plot there are no B or C stories. The secondary characters’ existence is completely linked to the main protagonist and antagonist characters’ motifs. Some extras are used but not to create a background, an atmosphere of life going on alongside this particular drama but only to raise the conflict’s death toll or to witness its development. Everybody is involved.
This undistracted focus leads inherently to leitmotifs and a kind of static and mannerist mise-en scene, acting and use of color.
The use of such a rigid structure when the story is about the murdering of an under-aged prostitute by an American interloper and the unorthodox way of handling the investigation by a sword-bearing police lieutenant is not very common. If the target audience is the very patient art-house cinemagoer keen on bloodbath à l’asiatique then it becomes a solution.
Therefore Only God Forgives cannot be an action movie Hollywood style or European style. It is not a story about individuals: some crazy brother, his “different” little brother, their unscrupulous mother and a sadistic cop. They are symbols, archetypes, if you like.
Nicolas Winding Refn dedicates this movie to Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky so this must be more than a revenge story in Bangkok. Jodorowsky has made a lot of films denouncing American hegemony, western’s invasive culture and imperialism. So maybe Refn’s is not bowing necessarily in front of Jodorowsky’s artistry but more likely in front of his sociopolitical views.
Refn’s story is about racism, xenophobia, the clash between the white intruder and the local “Chinese nigger”. They ceased a long time ago to be the curious tourist or the bystander ex-pat and the ever-smiling native host obedient to tourist whim. Most probably they never really were in a sincerely friendly relationship. The native is now fed up with the rich, abusive foreigner.
The native cop’s character, Chang (Vithaya Pansringram), is probably the most intriguing. He is the quintessence of fight against acculturation and white man’s abuse. All we know about his personal life is that he has a family but the only family scene we witness is about a conversation with his wife regarding dinner, traditional dish, naturally. He prefers to render justice with a traditional sword and he tortures with objects that can be emblems on sex tourism brochures. The most extraordinary elements are his Karaoke performances in front of his fellow officers, one time with The Great Chinese Wall in the background. Some surrealist political speech!
The little brother, Julian (Ryan Gosling), is stuck between two worlds. The one he viscerally belongs to and the one he mentally wants to be in. But he has not yet escaped his prejudices. He’s still a xenophobic; the reason he dare not touch the native girl is a mixture of that and the guilt of being an intruder. He has not yet escaped homophobia; the emasculation his mother put him through still weighs on him. His sense of guilt is actually what creates the whole atmosphere and guilt is what this story is built on. It haunts him like it haunts Lady Macbeth. He obsessively checks his own hands, the tools of crime. “Out damned spot!” becomes his nightmare too.
The mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), is Lady Macbeth without the guilt part, she is the white superiority complex, Home Country, Uncle Sam, western hegemony, holding all her children by their balls.
To escape from her sultry womb is impossible without a painful cut.