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Manuel de Layet [Film Festival 05.24.13] Thailand action drama

On a meta-level, "Only god forgives" is a showdown between western and eastern ideologies. Nested inside are multiple sub-variations on the theme, the smaller and smaller vendettas echoing the greater war for cultural hegemony in the pan-Asian territories. This giving birth to an Art House reflection on the social dynamics generated by the perpetual economic struggle for which south Asia is a new El Dorado. At least it's how I understood it.

Maybe are these previous sentences my way of rationalizing an inept experience, and there's nothing meaningful outside of Kristin Scott Thomas comparing dick sizes in the, now bland from overuse, passive-agressive world of Refn. I have to admit that this review could have been done with one single pseudo-word: "Meh". But, since making sense out of nothingness in order to create false memories for anonymous readers is the essence of modern journalism, I'll have to try and present this mashed-up pendulum setting in a dignified manner.

This is a story of murder and revenge set in an eerily empty version of Bangkok. The pitch being even more eerily void trying to tie, under the same inconsistent Art house lacquer, American mob drama and Asian cop actioner, with revenge as a central theme of both it could have worked better.

The setting is as follows: Two western brothers are running a Thai boxing club as a front for their more lucrative family business of drug trading. On a dog night the elder brother will kill a teenage prostitute. Justice will be shadily and swiftly dealt by the local authorities. Resulting in the mother of both storming in and sending the younger sibling, portrayed by Gosling, on a revenge killing.

After that, the whole becomes a perfect sinusoid of alternating styles and settings. It's like watching a ping-pong game with Gosling as the ball. Western / Eastern / Western / Eastern. Each segment being roughly the same in duration.

One of the greatest failing of that architecture is the use of the most ludicrous elements of the respective pop-cultures as spearheads, turning the overhead hegemonic war into a battle of tepid cliches: Mostly your run of the mill mobster "sex and drugs" for the Western world, karaoke and martial arts for the Eastern.

On the Western front, the performance of Kristin Scott Thomas dressed as a crack whore turned trophy wife, spewing abuse and profanity at everything that moves, while being tremendously entertaining does not make a film, not without appropriate support. And sadly she's a little alone in the endeavour of building the Western side, Ryan Gosling being the perfect lovecraftian hero: an empty shell devoid of anything, being just a pretence for the action to revolve around. You can actually digitally replace him by a parsnip and you'll get the same experience.

For the Eastern side, Vithaya Pansringarm was surely briefed to try and give a performance of stoic dignity. Hence some extremely, and surely non intended, hilarious karaoke moments. Now that I think of it, both male leads being wooden, there might have been a Buster Keaton joke I missed.

Still on the Eastern side, I think even the most exuberant mangas churned out this year renounced the "blade hidden in the back of a tight fitting jacket." Even if it's done as a wink to chanbara, or to world of warcraft or whatever, it still clashes with the other parts of the treatment.

Speaking of blades, let's dwell a little on the violence and how it's displayed. The various codes of chanbara are present in the limbs cutting of the Eastern side, so you won't be disappointed on that front, as for the Western violence you'll have the, surely now trademarked, passive-aggressive expression that Refn uses with a casual indifference bordering on the gratuitous. Gore hounds will not find it especially interesting since the whole in your face factor, still present in Drive, is now gone. Lastly the usual Hollywood taboo on child killing is also present among the piling cliches, so don't expect anything shocking or mind-puzzling.

Having two parallel settings side by side isn't an easy exercise of style and Refn was bold to try it. Still in the end it feels like a lukewarm critic of American influence in Asia set over hallucinogenic wallpaper.

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