Only God forgives - but this ‘god’ is unlikely to

Justine Toh examines the portrayal of God found in Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives, declares the title of the latest winner of the 2013 Sydney Film Festival’s’ Official Competition, and now in limited release in cinemas across Sydney. But after watching the film, which was first heckled at the Cannes Film Festival and has sharply divided critics ever since, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that while God may forgive, he’s certainly not likely to.

At first glance Only God Forgives seems an unlikely film to be interested in such matters sacred. Ryan Gosling, reuniting with Drive director Nicholas Winding Refn, plays Julian, who runs a Thai boxing club as a front for shadier activities. After Julian’s older brother Billy is killed their mother Crystal, Kristin Scott Thomas’ icy crime matriarch, demands Julian seek revenge on the man who did the deed. This chain of events draws Julian into an inexorable showdown with Chang, Vithaya Pansringarm, a local cop who not only acts as both judge and executioner but who also provokes the film’s bigger questions concerning divine mercy and justice.

Chang seems like a mild-mannered granddad, one who has a soft spot for the young girl in his care and quite enjoys a turn at the mike during karaoke night. But he’s not a man to mess with. He conducts impromptu night-time trials that draw out the varying degrees of guilt of those under interrogation before carrying out his idea of the appropriate sentence, courtesy of a blade he wields with deadly skill. Early on in the film, Chang calmly grills the grieving father whose daughter has been raped and killed by Billy, asking how he, the father, could have prostituted his daughters in the first place. Chang then metes out his own brand of punishment by lopping off the father’s hand “for the sake of your living daughters”.

Chang, then, is no ordinary cop but the ‘god’ of the film’s title who is charged with a sense of his own righteousness and invulnerability. He seems omniscient in his intuitive sense of people’s guilt and the way he effortlessly anticipates people’s moves before even they know what they’re going to do next. Then there’s his blade. It’s never seen strapped to his back but he never fails to draw it out of thin air. And he never loses, as Julian is to find out when he challenges Chang to a fight.

As director Nicholas Winding Refn tells it in the film’s press notes, the original intent behind Only God Forgives was to make a film “about a man who wants to fight God”. “When I was writing the film,” he says, “I was going through some very existential times in my life—we were expecting our second child and it was a difficult pregnancy—and the idea of having a character who wants to fight God without knowing why very much appealed to me.”

Though Winding Refn doesn’t go into more detail than that, his comments suggest that what has often been called the problem of suffering—that is, if an all-powerful, good God exists why do so many bad things happen?—loomed over the film’s genesis. Even so, that context doesn’t necessarily translate clearly to characters’ motivations. It’s not clear why, for example, Julian is so keen to land a knockout punch on God. Sure, Chang/God may have effectively caused Billy’s death, but Julian knows that his brother wasn’t a stainless victim.

In any case, Chang and Julian fight. Staged in the boxing club under bright lights, the scene is set for a thrilling match but it’s over very quickly. Julian gets severely whipped by Chang as if to underscore how outclassed he, a mere mortal, is when facing off against the film’s version of the Almighty. That Chang should prevail over Julian comes as no surprise but the scene can’t help feeling like a letdown—after all, this desired confrontation between a haunted man and the God against whom he rages, even if he doesn’t know exactly why, is what sparked the film in the first place. Yet Chang efficiently and precisely dispatches with Julian before stalking away, leaving him a bloodied mess on the floor. There is no answer beyond Julian’s wounds to whatever question Julian was posing to Chang in asking him to fight.

Several aspects of this scene bring to mind an ancient story of another man’s encounter with God: the Old Testament’s account of Jacob wrestling with a stranger who, it turns out, is God in human form. It’s worth comparing this story with the fight scene in Only God Forgives because they show us remarkably different understandings of God.

For example, in the film Julian challenges Chang, whereas in the biblical account God is the one to initiate the match. Chang wipes the floor with Julian in a matter of minutes, but Jacob’s encounter lasts all night with neither party able to overpower the other. Indeed the contest only ends when the stranger takes Jacob out of the fight by touching his hip, which is enough to leave Jacob limping. Commentators have noted that the original Hebrew connotes the lightest touch, suggesting that the stranger was withholding the full extent of his power in order to continue struggling with Jacob.

The Old Testament story, then, depicts the kind of god who willingly grapples with people and limits his own abilities so as to make the fight more evenly matched. God may still ‘win’ overall but the difference between his victory and that of Chang’s over Julian is vast.

American author Frederick Buechner calls this scene “the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God”. His point is that Jacob’s physical contest with God caps Jacob’s life-long struggle to get the edge over others. After all, we already know at this point of the story that the name ‘Jacob’ means ‘deceiver’ and ‘supplanter’. But here is a stranger whom it is impossible to manipulate, still less overpower. Brought to the limits of his strength, Jacob can’t con the stranger to get his way—though Jacob still pleads for the latter’s blessing. It’s a desire that the stranger answers in an even stranger way: by renaming Jacob as ‘Israel’ “because you have struggled with God and have overcome” (Genesis 32:28).

What might this ancient text then have to do with Only God Forgives? Maybe more than is first apparent. For in that moment Jacob receives his new name, he achieves absolution; arguably, what he has been searching for his whole life. And only God, as the film declares, forgives.

The ‘god’ of Winding Refn’s film, however, is as far from a forgiving God as you can get. Julian only has his wounds to show for his encounter with Chang, and this is no better demonstrated than in the film’s final scene in which we sense how merciless Chang really is. The film ends before any (more) blood is shed but let me just paint the picture for you: Chang’s sword is raised and Julian’s fists are outstretched in surrender—or perhaps supplication—before it.

Though the film has won top honours at the Festival, it’s not a film that will please everyone. It is frequently violent and too often opts for style over substance. The look of the film may be lavish but its aesthetics can’t quite compensate for its thinly plotted story and lack of character development. On many fronts, it fails as a film.

But Only God Forgives is a fascinating exploration of what some believe God to be: a harsh deity who delivers justice but tends to skimp on mercy. That portrait is a far cry from the biblical version of another man’s smackdown with God. As Jacob is recorded as saying as he limps away from his encounter with the divine: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life was spared” (Genesis 32:30).

Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article originally appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics.