Only God Forgives is one of the best films of the year. It is also the most underrated film of the year with a lot of lack of praise from critics. We all know critics are temperamental, but I doubted their temperament would get in the way of a provocative, intelligent work such as Only God Forgives. I was wrong. The following is my interpretation and review of the film.
Only God Forgives weaves the two tales of Julien and Chang together. Julien is running a drug ring in Thailand. Chang is running a police station in Thailand. When Julien’s brother, Billy, rapes and kills a teenage girl, Chang seeks lawful justice. He finds the rapist and allows the father of the daughter to kill the rapist. However, he cuts off the arm of the father because he pushed his daughter into prostitution for money. Thailand, especially Bangkok which is where this city is set, is a highly unruly third world country. It is notoriously known for its underage prostitutes of both genders. How does one rule a country that is so cruel and brutal? Chang’s answer is to be brutal and cruel back, but in a way that reserves a strong moral code. Chang’s moral code is justice amongst all things, at all costs. He believes that he has the right to judge and to punish those that break his moral code. He has no qualms about whatever violence he doles out in order to achieve a peace of mind for himself and for the country. He knows that criminals can escape the legal system of trial. He knows probably that his legal system is in shambles. He is, in a lot of ways, God. God is the ultimate judge of all our lives. We may be found innocent, but God will see our guilt. God will see our innocence too. However, Chang is not fully God, nor can he be. For an example, Chang must partake in karaoke singing after every one of his judgments. This ritual, like other religious rituals, is a palette cleanser for Chang, allowing him to relieve his violent methods while at the same time singing a tribute to those that he punished. His singing is his expression of the reflections he has on his action. A later scene shows Chang conversing with his daughter, asking her, “How do we resolve situations?” to which she responds, “We talk to each other nicely…” If Chang is God in this story, then his daughter is Jesus, salvation that may one day be relinquished on Bangkok.
The death of Billy pushes their mother, Crystal, to arrive in Thailand. Crystal is the opposite of Chang. While she is not fully Satan, she is very much like Satan. She demands that Julien kill the man who killed Billy, but Julien finds out what Billy did which gives him pause. When he reports Billy’s actions to his mother, she doesn’t wince at it. She wants blood. She wants revenge. To her, Thailand is a strange land that she wants very little to do with. She wants to kill those responsible and leave because she can afford vengeance. The other people in Bangkok are either poor or scared of Chang to be able to afford the right to revenge. Crystal believes she has that right, regardless of what actions the brother took and regardless of how the justice system works. Thus, the film sets up its main theme: the concept of revenge versus the concept of justice. When Chang let the father kill Billy and cut off the arm of the father, he did it unbiased, restricting himself to his moral code. Crystal’s moral code reacts solely to what violence is committed to her. An eye for an eye.
Julien, on the other hand, is stuck in between. He loves his mother. It is suggested that she may have even molested him at one point, which further connects him to her. He killed his father, which even further complicates his relationship with the family. As much as Julien loves his mother, he also knows that she is poisonous, hence why he lives in Thailand away from her. However, Julien is disconnected from the surroundings of Bangkok. Billy, also disconnected, believes that he can dominate the surrounding culture (he feels superior to the otherness of Thailand). He fails, however, and dies for it. Julien is indifferent to his brother’s death. He is mostly indifferent to his family and his roots in general. Why? Julien wants to assimilate. He wants to leave his old culture behind. He wants someone else to take over the feminine role that his mother takes on. Julien sees his opportunity in a Thai prostitute. He admonishes her with a dress, takes her to his mom, tries to win approval, but cannot, failing at his mother’s approval and failing the prostitute’s approval. He cannot assimilate to his culture because he cannot run away from his mother’s “love”. Julien, defeated by his attempt to force his own assimilation, decides to try to dominate the culture by challenging Chang to a fight at the behest of his mother. However, Chang defeats Julien and beats him to a bloody pulp. Julien cannot force his own assimilation nor can he beat himself into it, so he finally lets his mom direct him to revenge for his dead brother. He is told at the house by his accomplice that Crystal wants the entire family killed, not just Chang. Just as Chang takes the extremity of justice system in finding the perpetrator and the enabler, Crystal has taken to the extremity of the concept of revenge in the sense that she wishes to wipe out an entire family in order for there to be no one to someday take revenge on her. Julien, again, is forced into a moral dilemma between the two symbolic characters of justice and revenge (Chang and Crystal, respectively). Does he take revenge or does he enact justice? When his accomplice murders Chang’s wife, Julien makes the decision. Just before the accomplice kills the daughter, Julien kills the accomplice. Even though the wife is still dead, he has redeemed himself which puts Chang at an awkward position.
In a field somewhere in Thailand, a scene plays out where Julien presents his arms to Chang and Chang slices them off. It is apparent that, even though Julien did redeem himself in not killing his daughter and the ultimate salvation for the country, Chang is still restricted to his moral codes and he must punish him for initially going with the plan. Julien has finally assimilated into the culture by allowing Chang to cut his arms off. As the movie begins its credits, we watch, for the last time, Chang singing karaoke. He is very visibly in tears. It is clear that his punishment of Julien has deeply affected him because he wishes that he could forgive Julien for his crimes since Julien ultimately saved his daughter, but Chang can’t forgive. Because Chang can’t forgive, he can’t ever really be the God he aspires to for Bangkok. As the film fades to black, we are left with the title of the film: Only God Forgives.
The film asks the question; can we truly forgive people for their actions against us? At the very least, could the political system that governs us truly forgive our crimes? Are we doomed to be punished even if we try to redeem ourselves? Have we created religion in order to find some kind of forgiveness for our actions? A film like this should obviously be celebrated, not damned. Only God Forgives may not be a masterpiece, but it is the closest Refn has come to yet.