I’m pretty obsessed with hands,
I think the essence of being violent starts from there.
If you cut off hands to a man
he is no more dangerous
and his violent instinct stops beating.
The hands are like an extension of his penis
and cut them it’s like a castration.
(Nicolas Winding Refn)
I’ve often asked myself what makes a movie a memorable one. I know my tastes and I love when I can feel there’s more in the story than what appears on the big screen. I also love contrasts and connections with previous films of the same director or references to other film-makers. In the light of these criteria, I guess it’s easy to understand why I’ve appreciated the latest work by Nicolas Winding Refn, Only God Forgives. A peculiar symbology and the obsessive presence of the colour red, along with a story of ultra-violence and an unsolved Oedipus complex, make it really special.
This post opens with a quote from the director, who explains the reason why hands are an important symbol in the film. The first tools to the impulse of violence are hands, as widely shown in the film. In their epic/pathetic duel, Julian (Ryan Gosling) and Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) fight bare-handed; Julian’s hands are often closed in fists, or they hold a weapon, just like Chang’s, who prefers swords. We also see two scenes of hand-cutting and one of torture via knives (the “crucifixion”, the goriest moment of the movie). But this is a Refn movie, so things are not only what they appear to be. Hands also serve as instruments of pleasure: Mai (Rhatha Phongam) masturbates in front of Julian (whose hands are tied with silk knots), and Julian penetrates her with his hands only. The contrast between these functions – death and pain vs pleasure, symbolizing the eternal fight of thanatos and eros – surely represents a fundamental element of the film.
The colour red pervades most of the scenes. It’s a structural element which speaks a million words. Most of the scenes set in Julian’s boxing gym are characterised by a red light – the neon round dragon symbol, the black and red intricate dragon wallpaper, the lights in his bedroom – and the same can be said for the first crime scene (Billy, Julian’s brother, wears a red shirt in the only scene he appears in and he literally paints the room where he kills a 16-year-old prostitute red). Red is also the colour of the traditional lanterns hanging from the ceiling of the karaoke bar where policemen gather to see Chang perform. Such a fixation with this colour is not coincidental: red appears on the flag of Thailand and it generally means blood and life. This is linked to one of the main themes of the film – the bond between mother and son and the mystery of motherhood.
Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) is the epitome of the milf. She’s mother to two young men, but she’s still beautiful (artificially beautiful, with her bleached mermaid hair, sky-high heels and neon nails) and she knows it. We don’t know much about her and her family, beside some scattered news about their real business (drug dealing) and some interesting insights on the relation she has with her children. When she gets to Bangkok, she screams for vengeance, because she thinks it’s her right to receive the head of Billy’s killer “on a silver platter”. She never cries, never shows signs of grievance; she reacts more as a lover than as a mother. It’s not a case that the Oedipal and Jocasta complexes are hinted at here: Julian is totally subjected to her and can’t stand up for himself because of her; Crystal despises Julian (she tells Mai Julian has always been envious of her brother) but she continually calls for his attentions (the way in which she touches his arm in the scene of their first encounter is emblematic). Crystal doesn’t understand his son and he doesn’t understand her: he will eventually cut her womb open at the end of the movie and will put his hand in it, trying to grasp the unfathomable mystery of motherhood and of his own birth.
Last but not least, another interesting theme is the contrast between the “eternal loser” and the “almighty god”. Gosling was incredibly good at playing the role of *the* loser, who wants to fight even if he knows he will lose. He speaks a very few times in the whole film, but his presence and his expression always fill the scene. The other protagonist – Chang – has an even greater impact on screen: he strikes like lightning, merciless in his judgement and punishment as God in the Old Testament. He’s omniscient (he knows or gets to know anything) and almighty (he can pursue any of his goals); he’s the exact opposite of Julian, even if I actually see them as two faces of the same coin. As a matter of fact, both of them have a sort of internal code which stops them from killing children: Chang spares the life of one of his victims’ son and Julian spares the life of Chang’s daughter. It’s a drop of humanity in a world of violence, where a man like Chang, the “angel of vengeance” , establishes his own rules and his own order. People like Julian, destined to be losers, quietly accept their destiny – in his case, a terrible punishment which will stop his “violent instinct” beating forever.
 This definition reminds me of the title of a film by Luis Buñuel – El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel), which is not the only reference to the Spanish film-maker. I could see a homage to the infamous eye-splitting sequence from Un chien andalou in the Only God Forgives “crucifixion” scene set in a brothel where girls wear 50s-style prom outfits.