David Bowie plays a prisoner of war in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Nagisa Ôshima's vision of war-torn 1942 Java was met with middling critical reviews upon its release in 1983, but the film has grown in stature over the years and it now arrives on Blu-Ray as something of a cult curio, largely for the assembly of its three leading players - David Bowie, Tom Conti and Takeshi Kitano. Based upon Sir Laurens van Der Post's 1963 prison diary 'The Seed And The Sower', the film chronicles life in a Japanese POW camp for two pairs of soldiers. The British, Col. Lawrence (Conti) and Capt. Hicksley (Jack Thompson), are stiff-upper-lipped, deflated and, in the case of the former man, bewildered by the culture he is now charged with translating. The Japanese, Sgt. Hara (Takeshi) and Capt. Yonoi (Ryûichi Sakamoto), are warriors and leaders, but different in their approach to the British. They represent, respectively, sadism and empathy. Through these characters the film, as well as being a compelling study of the consequences of war, also becomes about culture shock and tradition. We view these themes through Lawrence's sad eyes; eyes which challenge Japan's moral authority.
Ôshima's films have always expressed criticism of his home country, and here Lawrence exposes and grapples with some of its hypocrisies and elderly modes. One scene finds Lawrence confronting Hara about shame, which for the Japanese is a feeling worse than death. They would commit harakiri (ritual suicide) rather than experience it. What the mannered Brit expresses is that shame presents itself differently to every man. In fact, he regards suicide as an act of shame - a cowards way out of life's challenges. The two men understand each other, but could never imagine living by the other's values. For me their conflict is the most engaging element of Mr. Lawrence, but the film is captivatingly odd from its opening minutes, which showcase Sakamoto's classic score - a blend of wind instruments and anachronistic synthesizers which look to both classical Japan and 80's America for its influence. His music actually musters much of the atmosphere that Ôshima's confused direction can't, as it often feels like the director is lost in translation between the Japanese and British styles.
On this note, I have to say that the actors are the film's biggest weakness. Not necessarily because they're bad, but more down to the fact that Japanese and British acting styles are so different, and the two are awkwardly married. Conti and Bowie aim for a kind of damaged realism, underplaying every line and expressing the majority of emotion through their eyes and subtle physical gestures. Kitano and Sakamoto are much more theatrical, expressing everything on the surface in grand sweeping movements. Their lines are shouted, and Sakamoto in particular seems to be struggling with the English dialogue, at his very loudest sounding like a bad Fozzy Bear impersonator. Ôshima implies a latent homosexual attraction between Yonoi and prisoner Celliers (Bowie), but the actor's performances are so aggressively incompatible that it's hard to read anything between them. That said, their relationship has struck a chord with certain audiences, and there's even fan art dedicated to the subtext.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is an oddity in Ôshima's body of work, but by no means its weakest link. Individual scenes impress in their daring, such as Lawrence's conversation with Yonoi where he learns of his sentencing to death. No crime must go unpunished in Japan, even if the guilty party is uncertain. Lawrence laughs the matter off before acknowledging a deep frustration with his captors way of life; a great pain, too. Scenes like these elevate the film to a soaring level, but there are also entire sequences which prove sluggish and unnecessary, such as Celliers' flashback to his youth and the troubled relationship he shared with his hunchback brother. Mr Lawrence is a hodgepodge collection of performances, ideas and styles, and far from a perfect film. But it is one of the most interesting I've ever seen, and am ever likely to see...
A good, clean transfer, but a bit of a disappointment coming from Optimum Entertainment, whose remasters of In The Realm Of The Senses (1976) and Empire Of Passion (1978) are far superior. Still, this is the best version of the film available in the UK, largely because of the expansive extras. There's an interesting 30-minute making-of documentary called 'The Oshima Gang', interviews with Jeremy Thomas (producer) and Ryûichi Sakamoto (actor/composer), the original theatrical trailer, and a 3-minute excerpt from Scenes By The Sea (Louis Heaton, 2000), a documentary about Takeshi Kitano. There's perhaps nothing new for fans here, but it's a solid package nonetheless.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is out on Blu-Ray from Monday 24th October. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.