Tiff Cinematheque - Nicolas Winding Refn

23 Oct 2013

TIFF Cinematheque Presents – Nicolas Winding Refn

The series of films by Nicolas Winding Refn is appropriately titled “With Blood on His Hands” for the graphic violence that characterizes his films.  His latest films ONLY GOD FORGIVES and DRIVE featured star Ryan Gosling and enjoyed a healthy commercial release.  (Refn won the Cannes award for Best Director for DRIVE).  But Ref had his start with his PUSHER trilogy that brought him international recognition.  A documentary of his work and financial hardship GAMBLER is also screened.

The series runs from Oct 23rd to Nov 5th.  Refn was scheduled to be preset but had to cancel unfortunately.

For complete list of films, program, ticket pricing and venue, check the TIFF website at:

tiff.net under the series section.

REVIEWS of Selected Films:


BLEEDER (Denmark 1999) ****
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn


BLEEDER, Refn’s earlier film is a good example of classic filmmaking.  It begins with the camera on the legs of the characters as they stroll down the street in a working class Copenhagen neighborhood before their faces are shown, one by one as they are introduced as Lenny (Mads Mikkelsen), Lea (Liv Corfixen), Louise (Rikke Louise Andersson), brother Louis (Levino Jensen) and boyfriend Leo (Kim Bodnia).  The story follows the five characters as they interact with each other.  To those who know Refn’s films, the consequences are dire.  For example, Refn gives the most unsteady character Leo a gun.  Leo has become more and more aggressive after finding out that Louise is again pregnant.  But upon closer observation of this strange and somewhat wonderful film, BLEEDER is essentially a love story of two very lonely people, who finally find themselves amidst all the violence surrounding them.  An absorbing, smart piece of movie making in which the unexpected happens in terms of a subplot transforming into the real story!

BRONSON (Denmark 2008)(to be posted)


ONLY GOD FORGIVES (Denmark/France 2013) ****
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn


The second collaboration between Danish writer/director Refn (PUSHER) and actor Ryan Gosling after the sadistic satisfying thriller DRIVE delivers very much of the same but in a more violent and surreal setting.  Though realistically set in the kick boxing drug world of Bangkok, Thailand, the film possesses a western feel, which is the reason the title sounds like one of the typical spaghetti westerns that were popular during the 70’s.

From the very start, director Refn makes authenticity of prime importance.  The colours of red and dark shadows give the film an oriental Thai look while the opening credits in both English and Thai indicate that the film could pass off as a Thai film.  As the film progresses, it becomes more surreal, from the dialogue and action.  The violence intensifies. At times, the film evokes memories of David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET with the ether inhaling villain Dennis Hopper.  (In BLUE VELVET, a kidnapped victim gets his ear cut off.  In ONLY GOD FORGIVES, an ice pick is inserted horizontally into a tortured victim’s earlobes.)

Refn is daring enough to substitute a well known actor playing the villain for an unknown, Thai Vithaya Pansringarm playing the role of the ‘angel of death’. Though one may consider him to be the good guy, as he masters a ‘sort-of’ personal justice on those wronged in the film (the father of the prostitute’s daughter get his arm chopped off; the killer of the under aged prostitute is led to be killed by her father; the hit man hired to kill him is duly tortured), he is the film’s villain per se as he is the that goes up against the protagonist, Julian Thompson (Ryan Gosling).

The story centres on Julian.  Julian Thompson is an American expatriate living in Bangkok, Thailand who runs a boxing club, which is actually a front for a massive drug smuggling operation.  His brother Billy brutally murders an underage prostitute before surrendering to the Thai police.  Lieutenant Chang (Pansringarm) – known as the "Angel of Death" – arrives on the scene before informing the girl's father, Choi Yan Lee. Chang allows Choi to beat Billy to death, but cuts off the man's arm for allowing his young daughter to remain in the business of prostitution.

But the real trouble starts when Julian's mother, Crystal (Kirsten Scott Thomas), arrives in Bangkok to identify Billy's corpse, much to Julian's surprise. Crystal implores Julian to find the men who killed Billy.  And the story twists towards a spectacularly violent ending that could be argued as predictable though Refn has infused a fair amount of shock surprises.

Audiences who have seen Gosling with his top off know that the actor is three times the size of Pansringarm.  Yet the boxing fight scene in which the latter beats Gosling to a bloody pulp is totally credible, thanks to Refn’s cinematic skills.

Refn’s film is a fresh gory cinematic experience set in his own world of fantasy.  Do not expect realistic but instead, over-the-top dialogue.  For example in the scene in which mother Crystal hurls insults to Julian and his Thai call-girlfriend, she reasons his incapacity to perform his filial duties as akin to his cock size, while putting his girlfriend in place before apologizing.                                                                                                                    ONLY GOD FORGIVES was nominated for the grand Palme d’or at this year’s Cannes.  But the film was met with quite the few boos by critics during its showing.  The film might drive audiences to the hills with his violence but this critic finds the film quite the fascinating cinematic experience.

PUSHER (Denmark 1996) ****

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn


The film and the first of the PUSHER trilogy that shot the then 24-year old director Refn to fame.  Already remade into a British film of the same title, this one is the original and should be the one seen.  The film traces 7 days in the life of a drug dealer (Kim Bodnia) who likely has the worst week of his life.  After borrowing gear to make a sale, Frankie has to dump it in the lake to destroy evidence.  Unable to pay his guy, he is badly beaten and given a dateline to come up with the cash.  Just as he does, his hooker girlfriend steals it from him.  Refn’s no-nonsense uncompromising look at the low-life drug world is edgy, scary and not for the weak of heart.  Still, he instills the audience’s sympathy for the protagonist.  Bodnia is excellent in the main role of Frankie, as he is in Refn’s later BLEEDER and his name comes up in the PUSHER II movie which is about his best friend Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) who he beats up bad in this movie.

PUSHER II (Blood in His Hands) (Denmark 2004) ****

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn


The second of the PUSHER trilogy benefits from having the most famous of the Danish stars Mads Mikkelsen play the title role of loser Tonny who is always all coked up.  Tonny is released from prison to find his outside world just as imprisoning.  His father barely take him back in, his mother has passed away and his girlfriend is pregnant.  Worst still a drug deal goes sour and Tonny is forced to help out his partner who flushed the gear down the toilet to avoid being busted.  Tonny who has the wrd ‘respect’ at the back of his head, is perhaps the most sympathetic of all the three characters that are each featured in the PUSHER trilogy.  But he is the most intriguing as he is always the man stuck in the middle – the helper who gets caught on both sides of the fence.

PUSHER 3  (I'M THE ANGEL OF DEATH) (Denmark 2005) ****

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn


The last of the trilogy which director Refn has fortunately kept just as edgy and intriguing as his first two films.  This film centres on the Bosnian pusher’s drug lord, Milo (Zlatko Buric) from the first 2 PUSHER fims.  Refn demonstrates that the ageing drug lord is still one that faces identical problems as the other drug sellers down the drug chain.  He still owes money, buys bad stuff and has to del with cops and other assholes.  At the same time, he is trying to go clean attending Narcotics Anonymous while cooking for 50 for his daughters 25th birthday.  But as in all of Refn’s films, plans go awry.  He ends up killing two thugs.  The last segment of the film (which forms the climax in a way) is the darkest and nastiest, with him and his crony gutting and disposing of the two bodies.  A worthy conclusion to the PUSHER trilogy, this conclusion is the most unforgettable.

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