Drive, He Said
My first Nicolas Winding Refn film was Bronson (2008), which I hated because it treaded over the same dramatic elements too much: it was a movie about a badass who fights when cornered, so he goes to prison where... guess what?... he gets cornered and fights. In the film's defense, it looked amazing with its theatrical lighting stylization, and I had been burnt out by a festival schedule where I had already seen three films before Bronson that night.
Drive (2011, Refn) is a treat. Cliff Martinez's synthesizer 80s New Wave madness and pop songs really characterize Drive. And Carey Mulligan's damsel is the right kind of distress The Driver (Ryan Gosling) needs to check his desires. Comedy and violence finally add to create a work that can travel around to plenty of audiences effectively.
Power attracts beauty.
Only God Forgives (2013, Refn) is an urban Crime Drama that takes place in Bangkok and focuses on the few individuals who wield substantial power in the close-knit criminal underworld, and the attainability of beauty, justice, and morality that their respective statuses and power afford them.
The film opens with a kickboxing ring Julian (Gosling) runs. Slow camera dollies fluidly present sumptuous production design, highlighted by real Thailand locations, elaborate black-on-red wallpaper schemes, strong red lights, and ornate floral arrangements. This Bangkok, like Tokyo in Enter the Void (2009, Gaspar Noé), is painted in its most dark, dangerous, and aesthetically elegant form.
Once the tone is established, the following 85 minutes sludge forward charged with the behemoth Cliff Martinez score, which is unlike his recent electropop funk arrangements. Martinez's score features foreboding low strings that sound like tectonic plates must be shifting, along with bizarre atonal percussion arrangements that sometimes sound like the music from the stargate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick). In the film's third act climax, Martinez finally brings out his Moog funk for a big fight though--what fun.
Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is the central character of the film. He rules Bangkok as a Police Chief, dishing out his own brand of justice, as he sees fit--which usually involves bloodshed. His stoicism seems contagious. The entire cast barely moves a face muscle, appendage, or even mutters a word that they don't absolutely have to. This movie is heavy. It's about a triangle of powerful people who cross each other, and the ensuing resolution.
The brothels and 12 year old Thai prostitutes are shockingly beautiful in their context here. And so is the venerable Chang's karaoke performances, with his adoring disciples (Bangkok PD) solemnly and piously granting him audience.
The blocking is very important in Only God Forgives. Audiences must pay close attention to eyelines to decipher where Julian is looking often, as cuts mismatch geographical and temporal unity. Is all of this real? Is some of it imagined? Obviously we are meant to decide ourselves, but we can assume the shots of the bloody samurai sword, for example, represent something more than your typical connect-the-dots narratives.
Only God Forgives meets the challenge of the cliché, "Go big or go home." I love the way the gargantuan metropolis Bangkok can represent the pinnacle of exotic beauty and vice, and we get to study the power dynamic through a few White expatriates primarily--it's fun to imagine that these criminals are so big that they just live off the fat of the land down there pursuing the classic safe haven for American outlaws, while running shit and living the life of luxury. And it is even more fitting that they all answer to Chang, the benevolent Chang.
I just dig Chang. Something about how formidable his presence is, always wearing that short-sleeved black shirt and slacks uniform. And Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) is hilariously adept at being the termagant who commands her own empire.