Saturday, August 24, 2013

Devil in the Details - Only God Forgives

Vithaya Pansringarm as Inspector Chang in Only God Forgives

Off-kilter gangster flicks are really cool things to watch, purely for the daring. It takes guts to tell a story without opting for cliches and bow-tied conventional endings. A film I remember is Sexy Beast, that Cockney-laced cocktail of a criminal masterpiece from Jonathan Glazer. Ben Kingsley's portrayal of Don Logan goes down as one of the finest in my list of onscreen bad guys. That was until a few weeks ago, when I was blown to bits by Only God Forgives (OGF), the new film by director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) starring Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas.

OGF is a strange film considered even by my hard-boiled standards. It's a saga of revenge set against the forbidding neon-lit landscape of Bangkok. I couldn't care lesser that the plot was wafer thin, for it isn't the plot that makes this film. It's the performances, especially that of a certain actor who manages to arm-wrestle the rest into oblivion. Refn's movie features Thai thespian Vithaya Pansringarm in the role of Inspector Chang - a protagonist masquerading as an antagonist. Or maybe it's the other way round.

Inspector Chang is the one solitary voice of reason in a world numbed by anarchic cacophony. His presence is single-handedly worth the price of admission.  Chang disburses justice in a swift, remorseless fashion, not unlike that of famed detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) in Training Day. However, unlike Alonzo's howling wolf among sheep metaphor, Chang is a man who lets his eyes do the talking. He doesn't have anything particularly interesting to say, which is strange as you still cannot take your eyes off him.

He also scores brownie points for being probably the only policeman in the history of cinema to have a penchant for karaoke, not withstanding Bollywood (phew). You have to see it and hear it to believe it, but Chang's rendition of a popular Thai pop song can tear at your heart like a machete through a slice of cheese. It's by far, my favorite scene in the film. Soundtrack junkies can feast their ears on a brilliantly ambient score composed by Cliff Martinez, who'd collaborated with Refn on Drive. You can catch a slice of the OST here:

https://soundcloud.com/milanrecords/cliff-martinez-bride-of-chang

Speaking of strange gangster flicks, a few moons back, I had seen yet another one of those weird and crazy films - Seven Psychopaths. I have seen offbeat crime films before. And when I say offbeat, I am referring to the strangeness in which the narrative moves forward. Prior to Seven Psychopaths, I had seen William Friedkin's Killer Joe, based on the play by Tracy Letts. That was a confounding and enriching experience in many ways. Watching Seven Psychopaths, I was in turn, reminded of Sidney Lumet's brilliant Before the Devil knows you're Dead.

It's hard to even begin talking about such films without giving their plots away. But they nevertheless deserve the attention. Why such films intrigue me is because I can sit back rest assured that I'll be taken on a journey I've never been before. At times, I don't mind the senselessness of it all. I don't mind the grey power it takes to interpret such movies. And I love the idea that every time I expect the director to do something I predicted, he can surprise me and say, "You know what? We could do something different for you."

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