Criterion // 1983 // 123 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 28th, 2010
Java, 1942 -- A clash of cultures, a test of the human spirit.
"There are times when victory is very hard to take."
The year is 1942, and Col. John Lawrence (Tom Conti, The Duellists) of the British military is being held captive in a Japanese prison camp. However, Lawrence is not treated quite like the rest of the prisoners. He's one of the high-ranking captives, and his reasonable nature has earned him some measure of trust from his captors. Whenever a conflict arises between the British prisoners and Japanese guards, Lawrence is often called upon to intervene, translate and help soothe the situation.
One day, a new prisoner arrives: Major Jack "Strafer" Celliers (David Bowie, The Man Who Fell to Earth), a tall, striking figure with impudent eyes and a clenched jaw. Camp commander Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto, The Last Emperor) finds himself fascinated by this man's unwavering persona and blatant defiance of his captors in the face of danger. As time passes, Celliers continues to disregard authority in a manner that causes tensions to rise considerably. Lawrence does what he can to ease relations between the two camps, but it soon becomes clear that an inevitable battle is on the horizon which can only be delayed so long.
Director Nagisa Oshima is probably best-known for his controversial drama In the Realm of the Senses, a boundary-pushing tale of two lovers engaging in increasingly kinky, dangerous sexual activity. The director was and is regarded as something of a cinematic anarchist, frequently defying convention and creating films that challenged the standard ideas of what is required from a filmmaker. Initially, it may seem is if the intense yet deeply sentimental Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a significant departure for the director -- an arthouse icon finally going (relatively) commercial. However, rather than actually demonstrating his own defiance this time around, Oshima examines some exceptionally defiant figures and studies them with a great deal of care and feeling. If the film is melodramatic, it seems not so much rooted in cynical attempts at audience manipulation as genuine passion on the part of the director.
On a surface level, the film most closely resembles the work of David Lean, particularly The Bridge on the River Kwai. Oshima is of course a Japanese director, and the film is based on the writings of a British POW. It makes a genuine attempt at presenting a level-headed look at both sides of the conflict, though obviously most viewers will bring a certain level of personal feeling to the proceedings that skew it one way or the other. It isn't so interested in examining the specifics of the war as in the general differences between the two cultures. This is illustrated most explicitly in the conversations between Lawrence and Sgt. Hara (a very good Takeshi Kitano, Battle Royale) on the subject of suicide: the Japanese find it cowardly not to commit suicide when one has done something shameful, while the British find it cowardly to take one's own life. Over the course of the film, Lawrence and Hara do not manage to convert each other but rather develop a sense of mutual understanding and respect. Their scenes together are some of the film's most curiously touching, with Conti's subtle reserve playing beautifully against Hara's raw emotion.
However, the core of the film lies in the electric relationship between Celliers and Yonoi. It was something of a stroke of genius casting Bowie and Sakamoto in those respective roles -- Bowie had established himself as one of the rock gods of Britain (and many other places, for that matter) while Sakamoto was arguably the biggest rock star in Japan at the time. So here they are, these two cultural icons, representing their respective cultures in strikingly theatrical form: Celliers is the epitome of strong-willed rebellion and non-conformity, while Yonoi strives valiantly for order and control. Bowie is obviously the larger of the two stars, and appropriately is the one who constantly seems to have the upper hand in the relationship. Sakamoto regards him with a blend of repressed lust and anger; wanting to destroy Celliers and become him all at once.
Bowie has always had a distinct, somewhat otherworldly screen presence -- it is no surprise to discover that he comes across as larger-than-life in some of his bigger scenes, but it's also worth noting that he has rarely seemed so deeply human in a role. Just watch him during the film's final act, as his mind wanders to a moment from his youth and he mentally creates a conversation with his younger brother that he always wanted to have but never got a chance to. It's such a tender, broken moment. And yet, there's such spectacular majesty in the scenes where Celliers asserts himself, cheerfully munching flowers in the face of forced starvation and staring down his captors with a steely intensity. Some in the prison come to believe he may be some form of supernatural power. How many other actors could have sold that notion as effectively as Bowie?
The film pretty much looks its age, but Criterion has done about as good a job with the 1.78:1/1080p transfer as one could hope for given the source material. The image is sharp, immensely detailed and benefits from deep blacks and fine shading. There's just a bit of softness at times, but that's due to the manner in which Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence was filmed. The flashback sequences in particular just pop with color and vibrancy, offering a considerably more polished, romantic look than the prison scenes (an effective bit of visual artistry on Oshima's part). The 2.0 audio is clean and clear throughout, and while it won't blow you away it gets the job done quite nicely. Sakamoto's memorable score sounds remarkably clean and crisp for its age, though it's cranked up just a wee bit loud at times.
The supplemental package is impressive, kicking off with a half-hour vintage featurette entitled "The Oshima Gang." It's actually quite a good piece, and also the only place on the disc where you'll hear any input from Bowie. Next up is an hour-long documentary from 1996 on author Laurens Van der Post, whose writings served as the basis for the film. "On Location" (40 minutes) is a new documentary offering interviews with Sakamoto, Conti and producer Jeremy Thomas. "On the Music" (18 minutes) spends some additional time with Sakamoto and allows him to dissect his original score. "On the Screenplay" (28 minutes) is an interview with co-writer Paul Mayersberg, who talks about collaborating on the script with Oshima. Finally, you get a trailer and the usual Criterion booklet (featuring a new interview with Kitano, an old interview with Oshima and a new essay by Chuck Stephens). Another great package from the folks at Criterion.
There are numerous elements one could complain about -- the melodrama, the tonal shifts between the Japanese style of acting and the British style of acting, the cheesy final shot, the odd manner in which the flashback sequences are conducted -- but I personally feel all of these potential roadblocks are assets to the film. However, I do feel obliged to note that while Ryuichi Sakamoto's score is terrific, his performance is somewhat lacking at times. Sakamoto's overacting goes beyond over the top during certain scenes, ultimately becoming distracting on occasion. Fortunately, the actor delivers during the later scenes that really count, but the film could have benefited from just a bit more reserve on his part.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence may strike a sour note for those who love Oshima's earlier work, but I found it an immensely moving, rewarding experience. Criterion's excellent release makes it an easy recommendation.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated R