The Semiotics of ONLY GOD FORGIVES

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Only God Forgives (2013)

Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Vithaya Pansringarm.

Semiology is the study of signs and symbols. To look at what they represent, how they are used in the media and what messages are being portrayed. Through the juxtaposition of certain signs, the artist can convey a specific message to the audience without the need of explicitly stating it. By analysing the semiotics of the film Only God Forgives, written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, one can see that the film depicts the contemplation of misdeeds and the ability to reach redemption.

The film takes place in Bangkok, where Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a muay thai club that is actually a front for his drug-dealing operation. His life gets more complicated when his overbearing mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) asks him to find and kill whoever is responsible for the death of his brother.

The biblical overtones are hinted at very strongly throughout the film. This is helped by the title of the film Only God Forgives, yet it goes in a more literal sense in this depiction. As opposed to God being a deity/spirit that is talked about or discussed say in an ideological sense, the representation of God in this film comes in the form of police officer Chang (Vithaya Pansingram).

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Chang is seemingly unstoppable and powerful. Every threat that comes his way is dealt with with a swift and violent vengeance. However, if he feels that one’s life deserves to be spared, he would cut off the hand of those he feels have committed wrongs as punishment. A notable scene where this takes place is when the killer of Billy is brought before him. His arm gets cut off not because of the act of killing Billy, but because he had sold his daughters into prostitution, resulting in one of them being raped and murdered by Billy. After Chang cuts his arm off, he states that “this is so that you remember your other daughters.” Sparing his life, but still punishing him for the wrong that he has done.

Throughout the film, Julian is fascinated by Chang, having many visions of him before finally meeting him. Julian’s fascination with Chang stems from a guilt that pervades Julian during the film. A guilt that is constantly alluded to due to a recurring image that shows up: Julian’s hands.

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Whenever Julian looks at his hands, his expression tends to seem regretful. Not to mention the fact that in all of his visions of Chang, they usually end with his arm getting chopped off. To Julian, his hands represent a terrible misdeed he has done earlier in his life. The guilt inside of him when it comes to this is overbearing and it prevents him from truly being able to engage with anybody. Even during a sexual encounter, he never touches the prostitute Mai. He can only sit there with his hands tied to the chair as he watches her masturbate. This sin has corrupted him with guilt and he cannot escape it. Eventually in the film, it is revealed by Julian’s mother that he had killed his mother with his bare hands, confirming Julian’s frustrations with himself and why his hands are looked at with such disdain from his part.

By the end of the film, it appears that Julian seeks out Chang to achieve some form of redemption. This scene is a literal translation of the following bible verse to celluloid.

“And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go to hell.” -Matthew 5:30

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The imagery of the hands and the sword is a biblical look at what misdeeds can do to one’s state of mind, and the price one might have to pay in order to fully atone for whatever crime or sin has been committed. The title of the film alludes to that theme, portraying Chang forgiving/sparing those he deems worthy, with a cost. A cost that Julian appears to be willing to pay, as long as if he no longer has to carry the reminder of that awful thing that he did. The cutting of the hands does not only signify an erasing of the past. It also allows potential for the future. Throughout the film, Julian felt bound by his hands, by what he assumed was his nature. Without them, he is free to be who he wants to be.

Only God Forgives has had its fair share of detractors this year due to the seeming slowness and lack of narrative in its story. Regardless of whether or not it is an effective piece of entertainment, if watched carefully, the film manages to poke questions at the viewer regarding sin and redemption. It is not an easy viewing but it can enable the viewer to look at how we view our own actions and how we see ourselves.

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