Doing violence to the senses in Only God Forgives

SINGAPORE/LOS ANGELES - Directors often give their films a distinctive look and anybody who has watched the works of Nicolas Winding Refn will notice his penchant for bathing his scenes in bright neon colours. There's a reason for that - the Danish filmmaker is colour-blind.

"I like contrasting colours because it's the only thing I can see," says the 42-year-old over the phone from Los Angeles where he's busy promoting his film, Only God Forgives.

The thriller opened in Singapore on Thursday.

So it comes as no surprise that the movie is set and shot in Bangkok, with Refn explaining that the glitzy neon lights that illuminate the city at night make it look "magical".

The locals' deep spiritualism also fits in with Only God Forgives' religious subtext - Refn reveals that the movie was written while he was going through an existential phase in his life when his wife was experiencing a difficult pregnancy and the film's original concept was about a man's fight with God.

It also marks the second time Refn has collaborated with Hollywood's resident hunk Ryan Gosling after the pair first worked together on 2011's Drive which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and won a Best Director award.

It became Refn's breakthrough hit and was both critically acclaimed and commercially successful, earning over US$100 million worldwide.

But Gosling wasn't Refn's first choice for the leading man in Only God Forgives, which the latter actually wrote before Drive. It was only after the original actor dropped out that Gosling landed the role, since he had hit it off with Refn.

The Danish writer considers that to be a "blessing" because he says Gosling and he "are very much the same person" and he can't imagine anyone else in the role now.

The partnership is set to continue - "If it works, why stop?" says Refn - and despite living on different continents, the pair are considering making a comedy together.

Refn refuses to elaborate but the genre is a surprising one for somebody whose previous work thrived on violence.

Only God Forgives is a bloodsoaked revenge tale about a gangster, played by Gosling, who roams the streets of Bangkok seeking the mysterious stranger who killed his brother. Needless to say, the film has a high body count and features various acts of torture.

"I don't think so much about why I do what I do," says Refn, who was expelled from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York after he chucked a desk at a classroom wall.

"It's like painting a picture - I find the creative process interesting and not so much the result."

When Only God Forgives was screened at Cannes earlier this year, the violence split the audience - while some gave it a standing ovation, others booed. The mixed reaction doesn't bother Refn; in fact it's exactly what he wants.

"Even for Drive, there were good and bad reviews," he notes.

"I always consider it a sign of success if people can love or hate you for the exact same thing. It means whatever you've done had an effect and I get great personal satisfaction from that."

Get The Business Times for more stories.