It’s been said that I can be a, “pain in the ass to watch a movie with.” I’m not going to attribute that quote to any one particular person, partly because I made up the quote, but also because I can imagine any of my exes telling me that. The sentiment, either in those words or similar ones, would be carried out in an exasperated tone and I would scribble a mental note to keep myself from falling into a similar situation again. I have some very particular preferences for enjoying a film, all of which are related to losing yourself inside the created piece for the entirety of its duration. So, no lights, no talking, and absolutely no questions will be permitted during the film. I’m not a masochist though, so I usually just watch movies that I don’t feel the need to invest myself in if there will be others in the room. Therefore, if Anchorman is on the screen, quip away, quip away. Comedies are fine, terrible movies are fine, mediocre movies are fine, Hollywood movies are definitely fine; in fact, the majority of movies that people usually want to watch are fine. The problem is I don’t usually watch the movies that are most often watched. I’m watching bizarre foreign films, indies, and strange experimentals that may require more than one viewing and at the minimum at least a fully attentive audience to fully understand.
So I end up watching most of my oddest films alone, in a climate controlled environment, on my back with my laptop balanced on my crossed knees, in the darkness, two apples sliced into categorically random small pieces and piled high into one blue plastic bowl, wearing sweatpants or long johns and my shirt off and resting on my chest, chocolate nearby if wanted (not a frequent occurrence), and silence in the room with the exception of the sounds emanating from my speakers. And to me, it’s perfect. Well… almost perfect.
Because there’s something missing.
Someone more like.
As much as I love experiencing an amazing film for the first time, it’s even more wonderful to go through that experience with someone else. The little gasps of surprise. The knowing smile of satisfaction. The slight tremble of a hand. The goosebumps that tickle up and down the back of the neck. The heart beating faster and faster and faster and nearly thumping out of the chest. The heat smoldering into an open flame, the sweat sprinting away to safety. A mouth unconsciously hanging open, waiting, waiting, waiting, and then the sweet cathartic release.
I’ve been watching a lot of Nicolas Winding Refn films recently. The Danish filmmaker is known mostly for the excellent Drive and the generally disappointing Only God Forgives in the States, but he is also responsible for the impressively gritty Pusher trilogy of films about crime; the outstanding Bronson, a look into the mind of Britain’s most famous and dangerous prisoner; and the delightfully strange Valhalla Rising, a surrealistic Viking tale and what I was watching when I realized my inner monologue critique of the film would be lost into the dust of the past long before I ever had the chance to reveal my thoughts to a like-minded soul. I was momentarily struck by a wave of sadness; although watching these films is beneficial for my own mind and creative energies, there is no substitute for witnessing a similar reaction in another. And there is no substitute for the paralyzing, time forsaking discussion that arises when two minds witness the same thing, but their personal responses roll down opposite and divergent avenues. There’s also the egotistic element, the pride that results from being the gatekeeper, turning the lever, and allowing a flood to wash over your viewing partner, the surge knocking them to the floor and filling them with the glow of something new and brilliant and wonderful. Nothing can substitute for that kind of pure joy, and sure, I crave the opportunity to introduce someone to their favorite new film.
It doesn’t often happen, but sometimes I do end up watching a mediocre film. Not that I am trying to sound like an elitist, hipster, film aficionado or anything, with my nose stuck somewhere up above the roof of my house, in danger of being clipped by a passing bird or plane or intergalactic movement, but I just don’t want to waste any time watching less than great movies. There are too many amazing films to spend time watching something bad or normal or mediocre or even slightly better than okay. My standards are too high for that. But, on occasion, I’ll go against my own rigid judging criteria and pick something that will probably not end up being placed inside a time capsule to represent the Cinema of Now.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives falls into this particular category. Of his six other films that I recently watched, all achieved the industry’s highly coveted, and soon to be internationally recognized, Grilled Seal of Approval, the GSA. Minimalistic, surrealistic, strange, bizarre, gritty, interesting, shocking, exciting, funny, and more and more and more, the films excellently showcase a range of material. Unfortunately, Only God Forgives seems to be lacking in more than a few respects. It was critically panned and commercially forgotten when released this past summer, and while it isn’t exactly that bad, it certainly doesn’t merit an intense and immediate search to find and devour. Ryan Gosling is an American badass living in Bangkok doing some shady stuff in the local underworld and fronting a seemingly legitimate boxing ring. His brother is an asshole, not the kind of asshole who, like, gives you wet willies in your sleep or anything, but the kind of asshole who spends his off hours seeking out under aged girls to fuck and/or beat up and/or kill. Not the nicest guy. So, boo hoo, Mr. Brother goes and kills a girl and ends up getting killed himself. Of course, Julian (Ryan Gosling) is now tasked with tracking down the killer(s) by his hard charging mother (an incredibly annoying Kristin Scott Thomas). I’m not giving much away, that’s only the first ten minutes.
The movie is almost too stylish for its own good. Ryan Gosling walks so slowly you swear he is actually moving back in time, and most of his dialogue is a one or two word hushed fragmented response. In Drive, Gosling spends most of his time being moody and silent, but the film clicks along accordingly and we, the audience, actually like the way he acts. In Only God Forgives you just want to smack him and shout, “SAY SOMETHING GOD DAMN IT!”
The film is interesting from a cinematic perspective, and I actually enjoyed it more than I expected I would, but that may have also have been as a result of my own nostalgia for Bangkok and Asian misadventures. Bangkok is one of the most debauched, bizarrely cosmopolitan cities in Asia, if not the world, and I liked watching the strange actions unfold in a city in which I am familiar. Also, I have a special place in my heart for watching foreigners receive their comeuppance. An American in Asia will be treated like royalty, and some, unfortunately, accept this treatment and push it too far. Throughout Asia, I witnessed foreigners (mostly Americans, Europeans, and Australians) foolishly allowing their own prejudices and their own nationalistic pride to affect their interactions with the locals. From simple disrespect to more blatant verbal or even physical assault, many foreigners (expatriates or travelers) are fucking clueless about how to interact with the local population. It is normal for a local in Thailand or Cambodia or Vietnam or many Asian countries to smile. They smile when they are happy. They smile when they are sad. They smile when they are confused and when they don’t understand. So when a foreigner comes up to a local staffer and starts speaking rapidly, the hotel clerk may end up smiling and thinking to himself, “I have no idea what this person is saying, but if I smile maybe everything will be fine.” The foreigner is complaining about a lack of bed sheets and sees the local smiling at him and goes ballistic – screaming, shouting, even pushing the staff member – while the staffer keeps a smile plastered on his face and tries to understand the issue. Clearly, there is a problem in cultural communication here.
Of course, there are much more sinister cultural communication problems than a simple hotel misunderstanding. As a foreigner in Asia, we are treated different and usually better than the locals. But a foreigner can never forget where he is. It is not America. It is not Europe. It is not an industrialized Western country. There is a current of danger that runs beneath these Asian cities, and the unknowing foreigner will step into the water and won’t realize they are drowning until they are already too deep. In Saigon, the local mafia controls everything within the confines of the tourist/traveler area. The drugs, the pickpocketing, the prostitution, everything is controlled by the same group. The bars are forced to pay “protection” money, and the enforcers dispense justice for those who disobey the laws of the mob.
I was at a bar one evening when an English man burst through the doors and plowed through the crowded room. Less than five seconds later two Vietnamese men arrived and tried to physically remove the man. The bar owner, some friends, and I kicked out the two intruders and tried to determine what had happened. According to one person, the English man had insulted a man’s girlfriend. According to another, the English man had ran away from a bar without paying. And yet another said he had smashed someone with a bottle. Whatever the reason was, he had done something that had infuriated the local population and, therefore, the local mob.
The bar crowd moves to the street as we push the English man outside. A sympathetic fellow foreigner tries to light his cigarette, but the fans keep blowing out the flame before he can get a puff. Mr. English is defiant and screaming and cursing and drunkenly wasted and refusing to listen to me when I tell him he needs to run while he can. But even as I am saying the words, I know it is too late. The Vietnamese on the opposite side of the street have ballooned into a crowd and a handful of them are holding weapons: metal poles, cement blocks, and other instruments of pain. The police arrive and spread out, listlessly waving their arms, but no one really pays attention. The English man begins walking away up the street and away from bar, but he doesn’t get far. A huge Vietnamese enforcer, a bruising hulk of a man, muscles bursting from the sleeves of his shirt and tattoos snaking the length of his arms, sprints across the street, in full view of five police officers and about fifty bystanders, and begins smashing the English man in the head with a metal pipe. Four more Vietnamese guys quickly join and a stunned silence comes over the crowd as the foreigner drops to the ground and blood begins spurting from his body. A couple of us drop into the fight and separate the opposing forces, and the Vietnamese brawlers hardly even register we are there. After just ten or fifteen seconds of brutality, the attackers jump onto waiting motorbikes and speed away into the night. The English man gets to his feet unsteadily and spits out blood and teeth. The police slowly saunter back into relevance and force the crowd to disperse.
Time after time, I witnessed foreigners who got just a little too comfortable. They stopped forgetting where they were. They thought they were invincible. And when that happens, more often than not, Saigon or Phnom Penh or Bangkok or wherever they are will reach out and strike back and give a lesson that won’t soon be forgotten. In Only God Forgives, the characters run through Bangkok like it is their own personal playground, never realizing the danger they have brought upon themselves until far too late. So, if nothing else, perhaps by watching the film, though it is not Refn’s finest, it will remind Westerners to be mindful of their surroundings. You are the away team. Don’t come to Asia thinking you will win, thinking you will capture the hearts of the locals, you won’t. Don’t come thinking the locals will help defend you in a fight. They won’t. And certainly, don’t depend on the police – not for protection, not for help, not for anything. Be mindful of the surroundings. Your little island stands alone amongst the crashing waves of the sea. There will be no place to run if a storm comes.