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Interview: Nicolas Winding Refn Compares 'Only God Forgives' To A Rembrandt, Responds To Critics & More

by Jessica Kiang
May 29, 2013 2:45 PM
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Only God Forgives Nicolas Winding Refn

There was undoubtedly no film that caused quite the same disproportionate signal-to-noise ratio last week as “Only God Forgives,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s return to Cannes after winning Best Director in 2011 for “Drive.” While to us the extremely polarized reaction felt more to do with the perils of unrealistic expectations (“Drive” was a left-field surprise to many in a way that “Only God Forgives” could simply never have been, given Refn’s different profile this time out), there was a difference of opinion among attending Playlisters about the film, though not one separated by such a wide gulf as elsewhere.

With the hubbub of delight/outrage still ringing in our ears, we got to take a few minutes to talk with Refn, the hero/villain of the hour, depending on which side you cleave to, this past weekend, and found the filmmaker on typically outspoken, occasionally loquacious, occasionally abrupt form as he talked about his reaction to the critical response and even dropped a few tantalizing morsels about what’s coming up next.

"The irony is that the people that are trying to fight it and criticize it, are criticizing it for the exact same thing they criticized 'Drive' for!"
How do you feel the heightened expectations since “Drive,” especially here in Cannes, have affected the response to “Only God Forgives”?
I don’t think it has affected it. For me, the greatest pleasure is when you make something and everyone argues about it. Because you know it’s the only time that people are actually affected by what they see. So I’ve apparently made a film that people either love it or they hate it. So obviously I’ve reached into your deepest soul [in a move alarmingly reminiscent of a pivotal moment in the film, Refn here leans forward abruptly and points at your intrepid writer’s gut area] and planted something, or else you wouldn’t love it or hate it. And that’s going to stay with you for a very very long time… so that is all you can wish for.

The irony is that the people that are trying to fight it and criticize it, are criticizing it for the exact same thing they criticized “Drive” for! For some reason they just forgot that. So…history repeats itself and everybody forgets!

Is it the violence in the movie that has seemed to attract the most criticism?
It’s hard to say…sometimes people argue about the strangest things. They tend to spend a lot of time on [the violence] and then I think God, you spend so much time on an issue that the film actually has very little of, compared to even television, I must be really really good at what I do! So again, thank you very much.

A colleague has a read on the film in that it’s about an attempt to end the cycle of violence that is the legacy of this one particular family. Does that sound right to you?
It’s definitely very accurate -- but it’s also about that. It’s very important it’s also about that.

And so what else would you consider it to be also?
Well, what do you think?

Only God Forgives
I suppose I concentrated more on the God and the Devil aspect...
That’s also true! No no, because the film is designed like that, like going to a museum and watching a painting, a Rembrandt, you’re going to see a thousand different elements within a single frame. Filmmaking is not about what we see it’s a very misconceived notion, it’s about what we don’t see.

Well, that’s an interesting idea because there’s a lot we don’t see and lot we don’t hear and lot that’s not explained in “Only God Forgives.”
Exactly. It’s the same thing. Storytelling is not about what we explain it’s about what we don’t explain. Sound is not about what we hear but about what we don’t hear. Because that’s the only way for you to interact with it, or else you become passive.

But how do you gauge the balance there, and give the audience just enough to work with?
I can only go off my own needs and wants. All my films represent my own needs and wants.

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  • Cindy | July 16, 2013 5:33 PMReply

    Isn't the Toyko film likely to be the Valhalla Rising companion piece (prequel?).

  • Thai Cineaste | May 29, 2013 9:56 PMReply

    Refn has become a parody of himself. All the pseudo intellectual bullshit he's been feeding the press is really getting weary. His PR people should warn him that he's becoming a laughing stock. I laughed at the notion that Refn explored Asian culture or has any understanding or even an inkling of what that is just because he was shooting a film in Asia for a couple of months. He didn't know shit about Thailand and he's none the wiser when he left. His whole crew stayed at a luxury serviced apartment. They travelled around in rented cars. All the Thai crews were there to take his orders. Essentially he was living in a western life comfort bubbles that so many westerners came to exploit in Asia. I see them everyday here in Bangkok. Refn didn't explore any Asian culture. He had no real interest in it. Asian city just provided an exotic locale for ignorant white guy like him. Asian faces are just caricature props to his 'idea' of what being 'Asian' is like. And for him to interpret that when people hate his movie it means he's a genius filmmaker?!? Well....delusions of grandeur or narcissism are probably the least of what he's suffering.

  • Jackie Coogan | June 13, 2013 11:23 PM

    Nowhere in this interview does Refn that this movie is about asian culture. It dosn t even mention asian culture. Refn films arn't about culture. Why is it set in Thailand? I don t know I haven't seen the movie, But there's plenty of reasones to film a movie in a foreign state. It could have to do with the undergruond boxing, witch I know is importante to the film. Witch IS a culture aspect of Thailand. Even when a film is not about culture its always present. And that becouse culture is present in everthing we do. So even if everything you say about Refn he still got know the culture in some way. And thats not takin in acount the fact that he didn t go to thailand to film in sets. He went to film in the street, in the bars, in the nightclubls, in the undergruond boxing rings, etc. So he wasn t just holded in some western bubble.

  • Thai Cineaste | May 30, 2013 9:54 PM

    Yes Michael i caught this in Europe last week. I read the script months ago. Both the reading and viewing experiences induced boredom with illogical phony dialogue and stylistic violence pretension. Maybe because i understand Thai language as well to know that, hyperreal as it maybe intended, nobody speaks like that in Thailand. Refn can shout to death about what he intentionally left out, those unexplained depth and subtext blah blah, his end product still came up short. Pretty cinematography and nice music though. As usual, a long music video like Drive but this time a bigger FAIL.

  • Michael | May 30, 2013 8:53 PM

    I get your point. However, have you seen the film? That's what matters when it comes right down to it.

  • Thai Cineaste | May 30, 2013 11:25 AM

    Hahaha. Why don't you make me? You really ARE boring like your name. And predictable like your idol.

  • Boring | May 30, 2013 6:59 AM


  • David | May 29, 2013 5:24 PMReply

    Hopefully Logan's Run remake and Barbarella tv series never happens. Fingers crossed for "Button Man" and "I Walk With The Dead".

  • Lou | May 29, 2013 4:56 PMReply

    What a lot of poppycock!

  • yer | May 29, 2013 3:20 PMReply

    The "My film made you feel something" type of statements are some of the laziest responses to criticisms I can think of. I hate it, it doesn't mean anything.

  • David | May 30, 2013 8:55 PM

    It means his film made an impact (whether good or bad) and didn't leave you numb.

  • Drewbie | May 30, 2013 4:32 AM

    To be fair, criticism of Only God Forgives probably doesn't mean anything to Refn either.

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