You'll notice I'm not attaching one of your own photos to this letter. There wasn't much point. As good as your work is, Shi, it never tops the meticulously composed framing of Only God Forgives. There's a Stanley Kubrick-level of discipline to every single shot of this film, which feels pretty apt, coming from Eyes Wide Shut cinematographer Larry Smith. I mean the guy's first film gig was chief electrician on Barry Lyndon - clearly he knows a thing or two about lighting. Then some fresh face like you comes a long and basically gets to enjoy the ride. The lighting is perfect, the mood is crystal clear, and all you're asked to do is pull the trigger. You probably felt like a character in a Nicolas Winding Refn film, not one of his employees.
Yes, the Danish director of Drive and Valhalla Rising has certainly created a brand for himself and his characters. In fact, along with Only God Forgives, these three films could be described as his silent avenger trilogy. Only this time, there are two quiet forces exacting vengeance on one another - Julian (Ryan Gosling), a drug dealing Muay Thai boxer on a reluctant mission to avenge his slain bother, and Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a sword-wielding police officer out to Kill Bill… or Julian, or whoever wronged him. As long as he makes a bloody disgusting point while doing it. In that sense, Pansringarm feels more like Winding Refn's muse than Gosling. Regardless, both actors are essentially blunt instruments painted in bold, broad colours - just like the film as a whole.
The authorial continuity from Drive is unmistakable, but in Only God Forgives, it's hard not to pick apart the director's external influences. Winding Refn might have dedicated the film to avant-garde artist and cinematic shit-disturber Alejandro Jodorosky, but that feels more based on him being an emotional role model. I'm talking more about aesthetics. There's the aforementioned Kubrickian symmetry and stillness to the framing, but also moments reminiscent of David Lynch's hypnotic elliptical editing, Ingmar Bergman-esque dream sequences and David Cronenberg's disturbing approach to sexualizing violence. Filmmakers are rarely mentioned in such respected company, but there's a caveat. This film might be filled with striking and beautiful images, but it's often feels soulless. It has the strange ability to walk the walk of an art film, but not talk the talk. The message is simply about how cool something can look.
I know, you're not complaining. As a still photographer, why would you?
But as an audience member, I craved a little more to chew on. Cutting out excessive dialogue is a virtue more films should follow, but there's a lack of characterization, social commentary or even subtext here to fill in the gaps. It's essentially moving pictures strung together using the outline of a Greek tragedy via Bangkok. Don't get me wrong - I rather enjoyed watching the whole thing, but mostly on the level of moving pictures. You understand.