Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn was a film-school dropout who gained sudden acclaim at the tender age of 24 with his ultraviolent 1996 film “Pusher,” which was eventually developed into a trilogy. He reached wider audiences with “Fear X” (starring John Turturro) and British crime flick “Bronson,” but it was really 2011’s hyper-speed “Drive” with Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, about a stuntman who moonlights as a getaway-car driver, that broke the doors open.
I didn’t especially care for Winding Refn’s latest, “Only God Forgives” (see the review), but I was hardly alone in that opinion: The film was booed heartily when it debuted at Cannes, a fate usually reserved for the “Brown Bunnies” of this world. Still, the film does have its fans: The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw had it in his Top 5 for last year. Winding Refn’s a good bloke, and clearly has talent, so when I sit down for an interview with him in Shibuya, Tokyo, I ask him straight up: Was he surprised by the reaction to his film?
“Well, the thing is that I’ve never made a movie that hasn’t had this kind of reaction,” says Winding Refn. “In a way, that’s what I enjoy about it. I know, whether you love it or hate it, you’re never gonna forget it. Art is about expression and accepting it; good or bad is kind of irrelevant. It’s beyond whatever you think, because it’s penetrated your mind. If you love something or hate it with such a passion, then I must have done something right.” With a smile, he adds: “It’s like being the Sex Pistols of cinema.”
Yet no other movie of Winding Refn’s has inspired quite the level of dislike that this one has. I ask him if he can identify the disconnect; what is it that people aren’t getting about his latest?
“I don’t really think about it,” says Winding Refn. “Because if I did, then I would have a plan. And you get too manipulative with a plan. It’s a bit like when Lou Reed, God rest his soul, went from ‘Transformer’ to ‘Metal Machine Music.’ There are reasons why he did that which I understand, and reasons I don’t understand, but the fact that he did that is what makes it interesting to me.
” ‘Drive’ became extremely successful, more than usual for me, but it wasn’t like a different film than I was used to making; it just kind of took on a life of its own. In a way, you kind of want to erase that because you’re also afraid of getting too comfortable. And by erasing something that worked so well, you also cleanse yourself creatively, and now it’s like everything is open again; all possibilities can happen, and you’re no longer bound to a style. It’s very easy to want to please. We all like to be loved, accepted, praised. We like to be in good taste. But it’s also the chief enemy of creativity.”
Yet it is Gosling’s performance, almost entirely without emotion or expression, which really seems to drive some people nuts. I ask Winding Refn to explain his thinking here; was it so the viewer could essentially view the character as an avatar into that world?
“Yeah, that’s how (Ryan) described it,” he says. “A sleepwalker, essentially, someone who acts without waking up. He was an enigma within the film, a blank canvas; it’s what you read into his actions rather than what he gave you. That may have provoked people, since they have this idea of Ryan as an actor, but Ryan’s a very smart man, very daring, and constantly erasing the various pigeonholes people put him in.”
Winding Refn had sold the film to a French producer as a low-budget genre flick set in an Asian fight club, although he admits, “I have no interest in fight movies; I’ve never been in a fight. But it’s interesting to make a movie about something you don’t know; it forces you out of your comfort zone.” (And fans of “Drive” should note the director doesn’t even have a driver’s license.)
Money was also a factor: “Genre movies are like the last independent filmmaking that is financially successful; there’s a built-in market for these sorts of films.”
But behind the genre situation lay an altogether stranger notion. “I had this idea of a man who wanted to fight God,” explains Winding Refn. The influence of Alejandro Jodorowsky — the director of 1970s cult classics “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain,” and whom Refn has befriended — can be felt in the metaphysical level of the film, constructed entirely of archetypes, and in its dreamlike pace, which —next to the genre violence — can seem a strange fit, like Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch battling it out in the same reel.
Winding Refn describes “Only God Forgives” as existing in kind of a “fairy-tale land,” yet although the film looks set-designed to death — the Black Lodge sequence from “Twin Peaks” as reimagined by Gaspar Noé — Winding Refn explains that there were no sets.
“The whole movie is shot on locations in Bangkok, 90 percent the way they actually look. When you don’t have a lot of money to make a movie, you basically have to make your weaknesses into strengths.”
For those eager to explore the film’s mysteries, Winding Refn drops a few clues in the interview — and here’s a heads-up for a spoiler. Gosling’s character, the mob-connected boxing-gym owner Julian, and Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the stoic Thai cop who metes out rough justice throughout the film, are, in fact, “the same person. You have these two alternate descriptions of the same character, but what he does is the same thing.”
Furthermore, the Chang character, says Winding Refn, is “very similar to the driver character (in ‘Drive’), which is also similar to One-Eye in ‘Valhalla Rising.’ It’s all the same character, basically.” Make of that what you will.
For a chance to win one of two “Only God Forgives” T-shirts (size M) signed by Nicolas Winding Refn, visit jtimes.jp/film. The deadline is Jan. 27.