The main difference between DRIVE and ONLY GOD FORGIVES is not that one is warm and the other cold, it’s not that one has relatively more mainstream appeal, it’s that not one has more traditional drama. The main difference between Nicolas Winding Refn’s last two films is that while DRIVE is a pop-anthem, something to dress up and shake your hips to while the lyrics offer a reflection on the nature of said hip-shaking; ONLY GOD FORGIVES is mood poem, something slow and deliberate and heavy, something with a build-up of abstraction until the last two lines turn it on its head. While DRIVE has a rhythm that makes you feel, ONLY GOD has a soul that is charred and broken in a unfixable way.
I don’t know how Refn cast Vithaya Pansringarm in ONLY GOD FORGIVES. I don’t know how much popularity the actor enjoys in Thailand. I have not heard his name pop up in relation to any Thai films doing the International festival rounds. But Pansringarm is the center of the film, a perfect performance of a fascinating character. As Lt. Chang he plays something of an Angel Of Death, a perhaps simplistic moniker often mentioned in the press of the film. Stoic and stone, he listens to the crimes of his people until his cheeks tremble with rage, and he has formed his judgement. His expression unmoving, he retrieves a blade from nowhere, dispensing justice as if he has from his very first breath. This man is not on a mission from God. He is not waiting for God. I want to know how Refn cast Vithaya Pansringarm in ONLY GOD FORGIVES.
I don’t know how much spoken English factors in Thai cinema. I don’t know how trained the Thai actors in the film are in the language. In what is clearly the result of several creative decisions, all of the characters in the film seem to speak in the same voice. There are no accents, the switching between Thai and English is totally smooth. Refn steers clear of any orientalism and tempting wackiness. It’s an astonishing achievement in an ambitious picture. This is a story set around an American in Thailand, it’s not about an American in Thailand. It is a film about souls stuck in purgatory, all different but equal, all awaiting their dues. If the vile THE HANGOVER II had not used it, “Bangkok has them now” would be the perfect way to describe ONLY GOD. Though I feel even Refn would find that too cheesy.
Which is to say, ONLY GOD FORGIVES is brilliant case of a Danish director making a Thai film with an American lead. Nicolas Winding Refn has list of Thai films hidden somewhere, the world needs to see it.