In my eyes the largely visual plot of Only God Forgives was woven with a great deal of complexity, or really, just what looks complex to one so uninitiated in the ways of cinematic storytelling. So, painfully aware that not everyone will agree with the interpretation I want to give of it, I want to try and do at least a little to illuminate the story. And in doing that I feel like I should focus us on the question of whether and in what sense Julian gets his hands cut off. We have that dream-like sequence at the end which initially seems as though it was the inevitable fate this weird and bloody story should be heading toward, because “Only God Forgives” so presumably not man. But is this really what’s happening?
The only character we see from beginning to end is Julian. It therefore seems right to presume that he is the protagonist, even if he has quite a few moments of not doing what we expect or perhaps want. How many of you, for example, desperately wanted him to win the boxing fight – what could’ve been the epic duel with Chang – first time you watched? Or at least wanted him to fight back admirably? People I’ve watched the film with have also liked Chang more than Julian. Why isn’t Chang a potential protagonist? Well, we don’t view the story from his mind for one thing. We see his perspective but we don’t get the look into imagination and desire that we do with Julian. And it’s these episodes of imagination and desire that probably cloud a lot of peoples’ opinions of Julian. That bit which was included in some trailers where he drags a man along a corridor by his mouth? Yeah, maybe not real. I think. That or the guy he beats up doesn’t complain to the police. But maybe it’s the same as Julian imagining Chang waiting in the shadows for him around the boxing club, waiting to cut his hands off. Which is what leaves me wondering about the end of the film. There seems to be a long period in which Julian is imagining less, and so perhaps worrying less, and then we’re greeted with the end of the film. Hands or no hands: is that bit symbolic imagining?
Well, for that we need to know more about Julian. Who is he? What’s he trying to do? For one, he’s part of a drug-dealing family, whose brother Billy has problems, who’s murdered his father, and who spends a lot of time with someone we assume is a model or a singer. As she puts it: “entertainer”. There’s also the odd relationship with his Mum. But I don’t think he’s a bad guy. I think the family is ultra-dysfunctional. They feel a particular sort of loyalty to eachother that makes them cohere as a family unit, but still allows them to hate eachother’s guts. The fact that they’re Americans who are now drug-dealers and boxing managers in Bangkok, and that Mummy ‘asked’ Julian to kill his father, which he did, would seem to say it all. They’re not psychotic criminals for no reason. But Julian is looking for something else. Perhaps spurred on by the death of his brother, the increased fear of Chang, his love of Mai the Entertainer, or all three. Whichever way, he wants to change. Maybe he wants forgiveness. I don’t know. But broadly speaking, he wants to do ‘right’ in whatever way he can, as opposed to or to make up from the ‘wrong’ he has been doing. This is why he doesn’t kill the man who directly killed his brother – Liang, I believe he’s called. And any extra anger he had would seem to have been extinguished by Chang having cut the bloke’s forearm off. This is also why he doesn’t want to let Chang’s daughter be killed – she doesn’t deserve to die. It wouldn’t feel ‘right’ to watch her be killed. Maybe it wouldn’t feel just. Like it seems a bit unjust to further punish a man who’s already been punished by having his arm cut off and daughter raped and murdered. At the same time, he’s not perfect. It wouldn’t be odd or necessarily out of character for him to have done the teeth drag on that guy in the corridor. He also kills the police sergeant put on guard outside Chang’s house – the only murder he personally commits on screen.
His desire to do what’s ‘right’, I think, can be made manifest in very human terms. Which is where his hands come in. They define him. They symbolise all the evil (not moral evil as such, but rather acts that seem evil to him) he has done with them. They remind him of all that history. He doesn’t trust them. He’s tied down, symbolically, when he watches Mai play with herself. Hands that could be used for making are used for destruction, hence the boxer’s pose: looking critically at the weapons on the end of his arms, vaguely prepared to fight. This, and the associated fear of the power or desire to destroy, motivates him to imagine having his hands cut off, and the blood on them when he tries to wash them. Imagining helps him to control control himself, to put an end to his past. Julian is not a weak character, and it’s fairly likely that even the ghostly Chang is not what he fears. Rather, as suggested, he fears himself. Fears doing what his brother did, for example. Fears all the opportunities he has to kill. And wants to be punished for that. He’s not incapable, after all, of killing Chang’s family and so potentially going to levels that the policeman can’t: Chang still has to wait for his enemies to commit a crime to get his wicked revenge. Julian isn’t bound in the same way – he can kill innocents for what an enemy has done. When he turns up at Chang’s house, he is as ghostly as that angel of death police chief himself. He seems to arrive at the same time as his gunshot that kills the man on guard. Yet he’s not there to kill the daughter as his Chang kills his mother, though we view the scenes in parallel and so some connection is implied. The connection is that both men are doing what they believe is right: upholding justice, protecting family.
Julian wants family. He wants to look at Mai as his girlfriend, but can only invite her to be so awkwardly. He says to pretend they’re a couple, but then for a time they actually seem to be. If, again, an unconventional couple. He takes Mai to dinner because some part of him wants that old standard of parental approval before he potentially goes on to try and start his own family. The perhaps odd focus he has on his would-be girlfriend’s vagina is part of this. He wants to be able to touch it, caress it, render his hands loving and thereby make himself loving. He wants so much that he worries himself. Spends so much time brooding. Because he has a big problem to deal with: in ‘cleaning’ or ‘removing’ his killing hands, what does he do to his mother? Brother dead, mother in a precarious position, likely to be Chang’s next target, he’s ready to start anew. She’s the last bit of his family left, but without her their small criminal empire falls to him, and can be broken by him, or left by him. He has freedom if she dies. But first, he doesn’t want to kill again, like he killed his father, using his hands to destroy. And second, what can family mean if it’s betrayed like that? Little more than business arrangements or friendship – not exactly the traditional notion of peace and happiness. Not exactly family. Instead, Julian tries and succeeds in containing himself, mostly. By his imaginings. By punishing himself in the fight with Chang that he doesn’t want to win, or knows he probably won’t win, shouldn’t win. By killing the police guard. By saving Chang’s daughter. All parts of a battle to ensure that he can stand back as much as possible and wait for his mother to implicate herself, and thereby have herself killed. He does this knowing she would not listen to his warnings if he gave them. This strange sort of ‘restraint’ is what keeps Julian alive whilst the empire around him shatters at Chang’s sword blows.
So, does he lose his hands? Maybe. The fact that the end sequence is just him and Chang in a sort of rural Arcadia (if Arcadia wasn’t Grecian hills) suggests that he has found peace, that the hated killing hands can be removed. But literally removed? Probably not. Doesn’t really fit Chang’s character to cut off hands just like that, nor would he seem to know Julian well enough to go on a happy trip to the forest alone with him. “But Julian murdered the guard” you say. Chang doesn’t know that. Chang only knows that someone who could have been Julian was in his house, stopped his daughter from being killed and took his spare sword. Maybe his daughter described Julian, but she didn’t see the guard. His body might have been dumped in a sewer and not found for months, or might be blamed on the punk in the skull mask lying dead on the floor of Chang’s cottage.
Julian makes it. Somewhere between washing his hands in his mother’s blood (looking for her heart or her womb or just something to show that she’s human) and taking Chang’s spare sword, the symbolism says he’s freeing himself. Being his own man now.
And the final karaoke song? Well, this is why Chang is an important character but neither protagonist nor antagonist. He dismembers people and then sings cheesy karaoke songs to his fellow police officers, who look a little like they’re being debriefed on a successful operation. His wife, if she’s not the distant woman looking after his child, is no-where to be seen. He’s possessed by a need to do what he thinks of as justice. Hunting down criminals with the heart and heat of a shotgun preacher. Yet he is still, somehow, on the side of good. And he does care about family. Hence the perhaps slightly cruel way in which he deals with the man in the beginning (Liang?) whose prostitute daughter is killed by Julian’s brother. He hates the seeming disregard for family well being. Maybe even feels guilty at not always being there for his own daughter. His song at the end is either the same personal pain and regret he feels a twinge of every night (maybe at a lost wife, maybe at a family he can’t quite cope with) or it’s him recognising Julian’s freedom and saying “I dream of being able to do what you have done. You are my dream, and it goes on and on as a dream.”
Chang is also a big part of the title Only God Forgives. If you caught the supernatural vibe he gives off and thought to yourself “hmm…that links to something” then that something was probably the Old Testament Satan from books like Job. In Job, Satan almost seems to be God’s torturer-in-chief, or just a particularly psychotic Agent on Earth for the divine being. Also in Job, Satan never forgives. He tests, he carries out a sort of ‘justice’ but it’s God that has to call him off. He’d definitely keep going on his own. The parallel isn’t exact, but, there’s enough of it to make a decent point. Chang’s karaoke can then fit quite nicely as Satan’s lament at being booted out of Heaven. He can’t have the peaceful family life. He has to run Hell, whilst people like Julian earn themselves a place in paradise.
As I wrote in my review, it’s a really wonderful or worthwhile story. Even if my relatively optimistic interpretation doesn’t quite fit. Which has, as sometimes happens, just spurred me on to think up a question for you, dear reader, that I can finish on:
Is Julian the protagonist, or is he only the hero in Chang’s dream, the film actually focussing on the poor police officer it closes with?