Only God forgives

The fight scene in the ultra-real psychological neo-thriller Only God Forgives is a beautifully photographed ballet of movement and primal intent. As I wrote this sentence I was certain that interviewing the Actor who was in that iconic fight scene would be an interesting prospect. As the taxi came to an abrupt stop, I heard a cheerful “Hello Tony, how are you?” which emanated from the gateway of the home of the man who played this haunting role. Vithaya Pansringarm a.k.a ‘Pi Pu’ (which is his Thai nick name) was the actor who played this demonic gangster named ‘Chang’, (meaning elephant in Thai).

Fight Breakdown of Only God forgives

Only God forgives
Ryan Gosling in perparing to fight Chang in Only God Forgives

After talking to Vithaya and investigating the film one more time I wanted to give my personal deconstruction of the infamous fight between Vithaya Prangrsing and Ryan Gosling in the cult film “ Only God Forgives ” directed by Danish born Nicolas Winding.

Firstly, its worth mentioning, one element of Nicolas’s films that he is known for is the ultra-real violence, which has led to some criticism. My feelings on this subject are that the violence is indeed so gruesome that it never glorifies these graphic acts and if anything makes one want to look the other way. I think this is exactly what Nicolas wants the audience to feel. The violence seems to be justified or at least in the minds of the protagonists with in the narrative of the story and shows what needs to be shown and nothing more, sometimes hinting at the violence or cutting away at a crucial moment with in the scene. That said, the scene which I wish to analyses is the only fight scene in the entire film and yet again Nicolas has certainly kept it real.

We have all witnessed the action flicks which have no real depth of reality to their fight scenes, thus leaving you feeling nothing for either the hero or the villain alike. This lack of reality always leaves me feeling cheated with no investment in the conflict or the characters involved. OGF is a true example of less is more. Vithaya Pansringarm’s character named ‘Chang’ faces Ray Gosling’s character named ‘Julian’ in a bar-knuckle stand off after a challenge from Ryan Gosling’s character earlier in the film with the simple words…“Wonna a fight?”.

Only God forgives
Ryan Gosling per-film Mauy Thai training in Bangkok

In this three minute battle we can see not only a subtle balance of form and function but, a true presentation of how a fight scene can be presented not just as an ultra-real street fight, but almost as art itself. Ryan Gosling’s character Julian begins circling Vithaya Pansringarm’s character Chang like a bullfighter preparing, before engaging its beastly counterpart. This interpretation is a great example of photography and direction which in turn builds the energy of the scene before the fight. Julian is poised in the traditional boxing stance and seems apprehensive as he prepaires himself.

After a moment of silence, a sudden combination of punches are unleashed at Chang’s head. Chang takes the quickest lines of defense and simply bob-n-weaves the furry of boxing punches. Then an unexpected clash in close-quarters serves up something unexpected. Julian throws his last right cross-punch and and then very unusual but, important chain of actions happen next and is something I have never seen in this type of film before. Vithaya’s character ‘Chang’, seems to deflect or parry Julian’s arm whilst executing a punching movement simultaneously. This technique is very unusual and for a moment looks irregular and misplaced. In my opinion, this momentary interjection of broken-rhythm and entanglement only adds to the realism of the fight scene.

Only God forgives
sword Pu

This movement could be mistaken for the art of Wing Chun. Most readers of martial Arts lineage would be familiar with the close range method known as ‘trapping’. That said, we should also take into account that the art of ‘Muay-Boran‘ (some of the oldest lineages of the art of Muay Thai) do indeed have movements that resemble hand-embolization techniques, not to mention, disarming methods and even sword and knife play that look similar to other close-quarter trapping arts such as Wing Chun, Silat, Kali and Dumog respectively.

This moment of calm is then interrupted by what appears to be a slashing right elbow by Chang. The power is convincingly felt by Ryan’s character, not with some unrealistic, spinning aerial back-flip, but a series of haphazard, clumsy steps in a desperate bid to stay on his feet. Ryan’s character then delivers a mid level knee which is destroyed with a downward elbow by Chang. Chang then delivers a punishing spinning reverse elbow to the face of Julian with in the same movement. Clearly, Julian is also a street fighter from his gangster days back in America, but you get the feeling he is out of his depth.

Julian seems tentative and appears to be trying to live up to his older Brothers gangster image. Julian’s seriously deranged Mother has also put pressure on Julian to live up to his older Brother even by comparing the size of their genitals earlier in the film whilst at dinner with his girlfriend. Chang’s older wisdom and years of fighting in Thailand are proving fruitful and no doubt his character is used to fighting dirty. As Ryan’s character (Julian) attempts one last futile attack, Chang’s character shoots out a furry of low-line rear leg Muay Thai shin round-house kicks to the younger opponents thighs.

Fights in Only God Forgives

This proves way too much for Julian as he appears not to know how to check these dangerous low-line shin kicks, which is done by lifting up the shin as a shield. These powerful low-line kicks can be extremely difficult to counter and are very damaging when delivered correctly. This is a clue to Julian’s past and true motives in the film in relation to this one and only fight in the movie. This would indicate that Ryan Goslings character has no previous comprehensive knowledge of Muay Thai but merely western style boxing. Further more, this could be seen to support the stories narrative that Julian’s Muay Thai gym is a front for selling drugs in Thailand and he has no real interest in the traditional fighting arts, but still feels the need to fight.

At no point do we see Julian’s character participating in Muay Thai and does not even appear to be that interested in his own gym or fighters when they are training for coming fights. At this moment, Chang finishes Ryan with a vicious upward elbow to the face flooring Ryan’s character thus ending the fight. Real fights are indeed a messy affair with no set rules, rhythm or routine, but a clash of opposing structures, movements, range, energy and unanticipated events. If you want your audience to invest themselves in your screen fight, they must feel their pain as well as their victory. The fight is not just a fight but should show not just strength, but weakness, mistakes and maybe even complete failure.

Only God forgives
Vithaya Prangrsing vs Ryan Gosling in Only God forgives fight

This will broaden your audience and deepen the viewers emotional connection whilst watching a fight scene in a movie. All the best fight choreographers did this from Bruce Lee respectfully placing the black belt of his beaten adversary ‘Colt’ (played by Chuck Norris) thus showing remorse in the epic ‘The Way Of The Dragon‘ to new ultra-real Atomic Blondes‘ character giving as good as she gets, but also getting badly injured in the process showing a level of mortality. This attempts to make the fight more believable thus more emotional content is required from the audience. Many fight scenes today simply focus on the action. Placing little or no real emphasis on the depth of character development thus resulting in a fight which no emotional content has the more discerning thinkers in the audience reaching for the eject button on the DVD remote.

My personal view on Only God Forgives is that, at the time, it was a fairly seminal film for Thailand, but failed to capture the international audience. Only God Forgives in no way touched on the acclaim of Winding’s previous film ‘Drive’ also starring Ryan Gosling, but has indeed received a steady cult-styled following for many years, which seems to be growing with time. The reason Only God Forgives stands out from most other films made or shot in Thailand is because it has depth and works on several levels. Nicolas Winding made it work this way for a reason. Only God Forgives has many layers and gives the audience permission to make their own decisions.

Interview with Vithaya Pansringarm

Maybe the character of Chang is a spiritual apparition of Julian’s guilty consciousness which has manifested itself after killing his Father. This brings in the karma theory and a whole new spiritual level to the film. Winding has left parts of the film very much open to interpretation which allows the audience to ‘fill in the blanks’ to what the symbolism may mean in particular scenes.

My feeling is that these types of unexplained subtexts can work really well and I love the feeling of mystery but are rarely appreciated with in their time. The appreciation only comes with time and reflection, not unlike Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus‘ which still has online YouTube film fanatics arguing to they are red in the face about what it all means, but now seems to be gaining more popularity than under its initial release.

Only God forgives

It’s refreshing to see a notable Foreign director making films like this in South East Asia and hopefully more will follow. If you have not yet seen the fight scene in Only God Forgives please view and make your comments below. Also please check out my exclusive interview with Vithaya Prangrsing and give us your feed back.

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