Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ***
The great Japanese director Nagisa Oshima is known for shaking up the quiet, stately Japanese cinema of the 1960s with his stories of youth, social realism, social critique, and even a bit of surrealism. His most notable titles from this period are arguably Boy (1969) and The Ceremony (1971), though none of his early films is well known in the West. Instead, Oshima is best known here for his pair of 1970s erotic arthouse hits, In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Empire of Passion (1978). Though these movies put Oshima on the world map, many early fans consider them a diversion from Oshima's true talent.
This leads us to Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), Oshima's follow-up to Empire of Passion, newly released via Criterion Collection. With the world's attention, he turned to this international production, based on an autobiographical novel by Afrikaner Laurens van der Post, throwing English and Japanese talents into the same ring. It's an odd film, drawing comparisons to The Bridge on the River Kwai due to its setting, but much more intimate in scale. It's relentlessly grim, constantly off-balance, occasionally moving, and often striking. (Oshima co-wrote the screenplay with the former English film critic Paul Mayersberg, who also wrote The Man Who Fell to Earth.)
Tom Conti -- who was nominated for an Oscar that year for a different film, Reuben, Reuben -- stars as the titular Mr. Lawrence, a colonel in a WWII Japanese prison camp on Java. Lawrence speaks Japanese and understands some Japanese customs, and has managed to earn himself a place as a liaison between the English prisoners and their captors. He develops interesting relationships with icy camp commander Yonoi (musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also provided the film's score) and with the passionate Sgt. Hara (Takeshi Kitano, in his first major movie role).
Enter Major Celliers (David Bowie), who somehow survives a firing squad and ends up in the camp. Celliers is a James Dean-type, rebellious and angry, but suffering; the character gets a flashback to a time in which he deliberately betrayed his little brother. Just about every scene in the movie sets up a basic, yet complex clash between the two cultures. In each sequence the meaning of honor and bravery, such as when to honorably kill yourself and when to submit to your captors, is up for debate. Occasionally Celliers steps into the mix to throw everyone off balance, such as a later scene in which Yonoi forces the entire camp to assemble, including the sick and dying. Celliers commits an act of foolhardy bravery and winds up punished, buried up to his neck in sand.
Oshima's gorgeous, deliberate direction suggests he knew what he was doing here, but in truth, almost every scene plays rather similarly to the one before it, and the meaningful relationships that are supposed to come out of this never really arrive, with the possible exception of a little post-war epilogue. It just goes to show that a prison camp movie needs a special kind of rhythm, with some sort of relief from time to time, as David Lean understood when he made River Kwai. Oshima is more pinpoint focused to worry about such things, and the film suffers a bit for it.
Oshima made one more movie, Max Mon Amour, in 1986, before suffering a stroke in 1996. In 1999 he returned with a triumph, Gohatto (released in the U.S. as Taboo), which was widely proclaimed a masterpiece. That film also reunited Oshima with Kitano, both falling into a much more relaxed groove.
Looking back at Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, it sometimes plays like a film that's too ambitious, or not ambitious enough; and ultimately not a successful fit for anyone involved. But it does contain enough memorable moments and beautiful, ingenius touches to make it worthwhile.
Criterion's DVD and Blu-Ray has one glaring problem: the lack of hearing-impaired English subtitles. The Japanese dialogue is subtitled, but the English-accented dialogue is not. This is especially a problem when the music is mixed in a bit too loud (which could have been deliberate on the part of the filmmakers). Otherwise, it's a truly gorgeous transfer. Excellent extras in this two-disc release include a vintage, 1983 behind-the-scenes featurette, and new interviews with producer Jeremy Thomas, actor Conti, composer/actor Sakamoto, a documentary on author Laurens van der Post, and a trailer. The booklet comes with an essay by the brilliant film critic Chuck Stephens, a 1983 interview with Oshima, and "ten questions" with Takeshi Kitano on working with Oshima.
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