Only God Forgives Ending, Explained: Does Julian Kill Chang?

Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Only God Forgives’ is a 2013 action drama film revolving around a tense ploy for justice and revenge. Set in Bangkok’s criminal underworld nightlife, the film features Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Vithaya Pansringarm at the story’s center. Julian, an American drug dealer based in Bangkok, faces pressure from his powerful mother, Crystal, to avenge the death of his older brother, Billy. Due to the complications behind Billy’s murder, Julian faces down the barrel of a moral quandary as he goes up against the city’s katana and retribution-wielding vigilante cop, Chang.

Given the film’s focus on metaphors and surrealism, alongside its confusing conclusion, viewers must have questions regarding the characters, their decisions, and subsequent consequences. If so, here is everything you need to know about the ending of ‘Only God Forgives.’ SPOILERS AHEAD!

Only God Forgives Plot Synopsis

American drug smuggler brothers Julian and Billy come from a powerful criminal family and run a Muay Thai boxing club in Bangkok as their cover. One night, Billy goes out looking for a 14-year-old girl to satisfy his depraved pedophilic desires but fails to find one in the brothel he visits. Quickly turning to violence, Billy beats up the brothel owner alongside the prostitutes. Eventually, he finds a 16-year-old girl in another brothel, where he rapes and kills the girl. After the police arrive at the scene and apprehend him, Inspector Chang brings in the victim’s father, locking him up in the room with Billy. The grieving father beats Billy to a pulp, effectively taking revenge by killing the man responsible for his daughter’s death.

Afterward, Chang takes the father, Choi Yan Lee, out to a secluded area to punish him for sex trafficking his daughter in the first place. The man begs for his life but receives punishment after Chang severs his hand with his katana to ensure Lee’s other daughters don’t meet a similar end. Meanwhile, Julian gets notified about his brother’s death. After effortlessly learning about Lee’s involvement in the murder, Julian and his men arrive at his house, where they interrogate him.

Once Julian realizes the circumstances that led to Billy’s death, his sense of vengeance falters, and he spares Lee’s life. Soon, however, Julian’s mother, Crystal, arrives in Bangkok, surly and vindictive over the death of her firstborn. When Crystal discovers Julian let Billy’s murderer go, she expresses her disappointment and anger in Julian. Indifferent to her son’s inhumane crime, Crystal approaches Billy’s right-hand man, Gordon, who sends a boy to kill Lee. Nevertheless, Lee’s death doesn’t sate Crystal’s need for revenge once she learns about Chang’s part in Billy’s murder.

As a result, she strikes up a deal with a known local criminal, Byron, who sends out a hit on Chang. While in town, Crystal has dinner with Julian, who brings Mai, the regular sex worker he hires, as his fake girlfriend. Over the dinner, Crystal is particularly callous toward Mai and Julian. Simultaneously several men try to assassinate Chang. However, they fail, hence, leading the cop to Byron.

Chang tortures Byron, trying to find out the identity of whoever wants Chang dead. After a visit to Crystal, who is having dinner with Julian and Mai, Chang takes Julian on in a competitive fistfight, in which Julian pathetically emerges as the loser. Shortly after, Crystal realizes Chang knows about her involvement in sending out his assassination hit and pleads with Julian to take care of the problem for her.

Only God Forgives Ending: Does Julian Kill Chang?

From the beginning, Julian makes it known that he doesn’t feel the need to bring retribution to his brother’s killers. Crystal believes this is because Julian envies his brother since Billy has a better relationship with Crystal than Julian does. Considering her immense narcissism, this assumption hardly seems out of character for her. However, the same is not the reason behind Julian’s reluctance to first kill Lee, then Chang.

Regardless of Julian’s criminal background and inclination to violent outbursts, Julian recognizes the gravity of his brother’s actions and feels his fate was well-deserved. Nevertheless, he also wants to please his mother and tries to go after Chang several times throughout the film to no avail. The most notable attempt is when he invites Chang for a round of fistfighting. At Julian’s boxing club, the two men engage in a fight, in which Chang dodges all of Julian’s initial attacks and then obliterates him.

Even though Julian’s inability to land a single punch is surprising, it symbolizes his position in the story as a character at that moment. Julian doesn’t actually want to kill Chang and has no sense of ill-thought toward him. Julian has made peace with Billy’s fate after recognizing Billy was responsible for his own death. In that sense, Julian has forgiven Chang for his involvement in his older brother’s death and doesn’t wish to harm him. As such, Julian attempts to harm Chang during the fight but fails because of his lack of conviction.

The same represents Julian’s primary dilemma throughout the film between his morals and his mother’s wishes. Ultimately, the obligation he feels toward his mother wins out. Crystal is a manipulative woman. She easily persuades Julian to do her bidding after subtly reminding him of the favor she did him by giving birth to him, ignoring everyone’s suggestion to terminate her pregnancy at the time.

Therefore, Julian agrees to kill Chang after Crystal tells him the cop is coming after her. Julian visits Chang’s house with one of his men, waiting for him to return. While there, he learns that his mother wants Chang’s young daughter dead as well and that the other man will ensure the same. The information acts as a catalyst for Julian recognizing his mother’s evil. As a result, after Chang’s daughter arrives, Julian kills Crystal’s lackey, preventing him from killing the kid. His decision to spare Chang’s daughter’s life directly showcases his decision to go against his mother and not kill Chang.

Why Does Julian Cut Open Crystal?

One of the more confounding moments during this film comes after Crystal’s death at Chang’s hands. While Julian is waiting at Chang’s house, Chang arrives at Crystal’s hotel. Recognizing her imminent doom, Crystal gives one last try at self-preservation by trying to throw Julian under the bus. She claims to have lost touch with Julian and paints a savage picture of him. By doing so, Crystal wants to make Chang believe that Julian is responsible for the hit on Chang instead of her.

Nevertheless, Chang sees through her lies and delivers her to her death with his virtuous katana. Later, Julian returns to his mother’s hotel with a similar katana that he found in Chang’s house. The katana is black in color compared to Chang’s white. The distinction can symbolize many things, but at the moment, the dichotomy between good and evil seems the most fitting. Whereas Chang’s white blade delivers justice, Julian’s black blade seeks imposed penance.

Julian is clearly a tortured man with issues and unnamed trauma. Although the specifics of the same aren’t known, it’s not difficult to imagine Crystal’s contribution to it as Julian’s cold, devious mother. Crystal also clearly prefers Billy since she repeatedly demeans and humiliates Julian. Likewise, her unprompted mention of her sons’ penis sizes, alongside Julian’s “paranoid delusions” about Crystal and Billy, suggests a disturbing, potentially incestuous history.

As such, when Julian uses the black katana to cut open Crystal’s stomach, he does so to exact revenge upon her and seek comfort from his pain. Crystal’s death marks the end of Julian’s entire family, leaving him more alone than ever. Therefore, Julian reaching into Crystal’s womb can be interpreted as Julian seeking comfort from his mother. The only time Julian remembers being cared for by his mother and feeling her “motherly warmth” is when he was unborn and still in the womb. Hence, it’s how he takes comfort from his mother in her death.

Furthermore, the focus on Julian’s hand as it pushes into his mother’s womb also serves as a juxtaposition to all the times we see Julian’s hands prior to that moment. In Julian’s sexual indulgence, he only watches Mai pleasure herself and keeps his hands to himself. In doing so, he keeps his desires in check, not trusting his hands to touch another person without inflicting hurt. Therefore, the visual of Julian’s hands grotesquely seeking comfort from Crystal represents the damage Crystal has done to Julian’s psyche that prevents him from getting close to other people.

What Does The Final Scene Signify?

At the film’s end, Chang comes for Julian. Throughout the film, even before Julian meets Chang, he has visions about Chang emerging from the darkness with his katana. Once, Julian even tries to run from this vision. However, Julian faces his fate in the end.

Everyone that Chang harms with his sword, from Lee to Crystal, ends up at the other of the sword because of their immoral actions. As such, the katana, and by extension Chang, forms the narrative’s sense of justice. When Julian intentionally presents himself for punishment in front of Chang, he’s taking accountability for his actions. However, more prominently, he’s cleansing himself of his past.

As stated before, the film’s focus on Julian’s hands is a significant and noticeable detail. In the past, Julian killed his father at his mother’s request. Little is known about the series of events that led to Julian’s father’s murder or the events that transpired after. Nevertheless, the one important piece of the puzzle is that Julian killed his father with his bare hands. Similarly, when Julian attacks the guy who gets on his nerve at the club, he drags him out with his hands.

Julian’s refusal to touch Mai presents a poignant detail about his character throughout the film. He doesn’t touch Mai in sexual scenarios and only touches her when he angrily shoves her against a wall. All of this symbolizes Julian’s association of violence with his hands. The film implies Julian is a dangerous man. However, Julian has a taut relationship with his potential for violence.

Therefore, by presenting his hands to Chang, Julian is permanently amputating his relationship with violence. The final scene is an act of atonement that Julian exhibits, and Chang delivers. Through it, Julian and Chang forgive the former’s past and allow him a chance at a new life devoid of revenge and violence.

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