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Bangkok as you've never seen it?

Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives shows a dark, violent and new side side to the Thai capital

  • Bangkok as you've never seen it?
  • Bangkok as you've never seen it?
  • Bangkok as you've never seen it?
  • Bangkok as you've never seen it?

The Lord of the Rings film trilogy may have had tourists flocking to New Zealand, but it’s unlikely the ultra-violent Bangkok-set movie Only God Forgives will have travellers rushing to Thailand. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon-hued revenge story of US expats in Bangkok had half the critics booing and half of them standing to deliver an ovation when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

Nonetheless, according to its Thai unit production manager, Only God Forgives is also one of the most authentic Bangkok films ever made by a Western director. “This is not just a very ‘Nicolas’ film, it’s a very Bangkok film,” says Pakinee Chaisana, a veteran with a career dating back to 1984’s Oscar-winner The Killing Fields.

The entire movie was shot on location in Bangkok over three months and Chaisana says, “These aren’t scenes of the city you’ve seen before. Nicolas likes things shot as they are and everything in the film is right there in the city.”

The gritty locations include Rangsit boxing stadium and Muay Thai Institute in the north-eastern suburbs, which in the film become the Muay Thai boxing club that Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs with his brother as a front for a drugs operation. Then there are the S2 and 888 karaoke joints in Bangkok’s Chinatown, which host some strangely creepy karaoke scenes.

Pulp auteur Winding Refn – whose highly acclaimed films include Pusher (1996), Bronson (2008) and Drive (2011) – is a regular traveller to the Thai capital and spent three months soaking up the city before filming.
Perhaps his biggest decision was to cast local actors in some of the main roles alongside Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas, who puts in a terrifying performance as Julian’s bitchy, expletive-spewing mother. Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm is Chang, the “Angel of Vengeance”, a mysterious plain-clothes police officer who croons sentimental karaoke songs when he’s not meting out brutal justice with his samurai sword. Pansringarm received by far the loudest applause at the cast’s post-film appearance at Cannes (actor-of-the-moment Gosling was absent). There’s also a subtle performance from Yayaying Rhatha Phongam as prostitute Maï.

“It’s really the first time that a Western director has given juicy roles to local actors,” says Chaisana. “Usually, they’re just extras [see Pansringarm’s cameo in The Hangover Part II, for example], but these are real roles and they have the hallmarks of Nicolas’s best characters, with inner agendas and this intense charisma. Not a lot is actually spoken – things are said with looks and actions.”

Chaisana says the director was a stickler for detail during the filming, shooting scenes in chronological order – which is unusual – and almost entirely at night. “He really takes time with the actors and he listens, which is surprisingly rare for directors. He always wants to make sure that the details are right – that this is how Thais would react, this is how they’d do things. Most of all, though, it will bring Thai talent to the foreground.”  
Only God Forgives is released on 19 July

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