Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

Based on the books The Seed and the Sower and The Night of the New Moon by Sir Laurens van der Post, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is the story of a British POW who defies the Japanese while being their captor while another British officer tries to mediate between the two sides. Directed by Nagisa Oshima and screenplay by Oshima and Paul Mayersberg, the film is a look into life in a Japanese prison camp during World War II as well as how some cope with being in prison as some deal with their own guilt as it relates to the pain they’re suffering in camp. Starring David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thompson, Johnny Okhura, Alistair Browning, and James Malcolm. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a riveting and haunting film from Nagisa Oshima.

Set in 1942 at a Japanese prisoner of war camp, the film revolves around a new prisoner who would defy the orders of his captors leading to some intrigue and terror while another British officer tries to smooth things between both the British prisoners and the Japanese guards. It’s a film that play into a clash of cultures and ideals between two different factions as a few of them try to understand one another. The film’s screenplay by Nagisa Oshima and Paul Mayersberg opens with life at the camp where the British lieutenant colonel Lawrence (Tom Conti) confers with Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano) about an incident involving a Dutch soldier and a Korean soldier as the latter tries to commit hara-kiri but fails as Lawrence is still new to the concept of hara-kiri. Upon the arrival of Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) to the camp having been on trial by the Japanese war council as he is a rebellious figure who has caught the eye of POW camp’s commandant Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) whom he sees as an equal.

The screenplay explore the dynamics of these four men at the camp with Lawrence and Sgt. Hara both being men who try to create a dialogue between both the British and Japanese while there are these two extremes in Celliers and Captain Yonoi with the latter seemingly having a fixation on the former. The script showcases the world of the camp as well as some of the labor the prisoners have to endure as the prisoners’ representative Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson) has a hard time trying to deal with the Japanese despite being one of their captors. Upon viewing an act of seppuku which makes Lawrence and Captain Hicksley uneasy, things do intensify with Lawrence and Celliers getting into trouble over some misunderstandings as the latter admits to his own demons as some believe that Celliers is a demon that is trying to haunt Captain Yonoi.

Oshima’s direction has elements of style as it play into the life inside a POW camp. Shot mainly in Indonesia with some scenes shot in Cook Island and parts of Auckland, New Zealand, Oshima recreates the world of the Japanese prison camp where the prisoners don’t live in great conditions though Lawrence is given a bit of special privilege due to his friendship with Sgt. Hara. There are some unique compositions in the wide and medium shots that include a scene of Captain Yonoi doing a sword fight with another officer as a way to hold on to the ideas of the samurai. It’s a scene that showcases Japanese culture as it is foreign to the likes of Lawrence and Celliers as the former does become frustrated following a scene where Sgt. Hara is doing a traditional prayer with Captain Yonoi watching.

Oshima’s close-ups add to this intrigue between Captain Yonoi and Celliers as both men are both hiding some source of guilt as the former isn’t willing to show his feelings as he is consumed with shame. Celliers’ guilt would be unveiled in an extended flashback sequence as it relates to his own actions towards his little brother (James Malcolm). Oshima also play into this element of homosexual tendencies as it relates to the Dutch and Korean soldiers in the film’s opening scene but also within Captain Yonoi as it creates a lot of dramatic ambiguity into Celliers’ action during its climax. Its third act that does relate to the event of Christmas is more about action and its consequences as it is followed by a somber aftermath in the ending that takes place a year after World War II ended. Especially in light of the sense of inhumanity of war and how a few was able to try to bring some humanity back into themselves. Overall, Oshima crafts a rapturous yet evocative film about a culture clash and exploration of shame at a Japanese POW camp.

Cinematographer Toichiro Narushima does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography with its usage of filters for a few nighttime exterior scenes at the camp along with some naturalistic imagery for the daytime scenes as well as a vibrantly-rich look for a dream sequence in the film. Editor Tomoyo Oshima does excellent work with the editing as it is largely straightforward with some rhythmic cuts to play into some of the dramatic tension that occurs within the film. Production designer Jusho Toda and art director Andrew Sanders do amazing work with the look of the prison camps as well as the places where the Japanese officers stay at including the room where Captain Yonoi practices his sword work.

Special effects supervisor Kevin Chisnall does nice work with the special effects as it is mainly for a shot for the film’s climax. Sound recordist Mike Westgate does superb work with the sound as it play into the atmosphere of the camp as well as the sparse and natural sounds that occur within the film. The film’s music by Ryuichi Sakamoto is incredible for its mixtures of traditional Japanese string music, orchestral flourishes, and electronic textures as it add a lot of dramatic flair to the film while Sakamoto also contributes to the film’s theme song Forbidden Colours with David Sylvain while additional music include traditional choir pieces and Christmas songs.

The film’s wonderful cast feature some notable small roles from Hideo Murota as a camp commandant who appears late in the film, Chris Broun as the twelve-year old Celliers, Kan Mikami as one of Captain Yonoi’s aides in Lt. Ito, Tamio Ishikura as a prosecutor in Celliers’ trial, Ryunosuke Kaneda as the trial judge in Col. Fujimura, Alistair Browning as the Dutch prisoner, Johnny Okhura as the Korean prisoner, and James Malcolm as Celliers’ younger brother whom he would become a victim of an event that played into Celliers’ guilt. Jack Thompson is fantastic as Group Captain Hicksley as the POW camp representative for the Allies who isn’t fond of being captured or having to answer to the Japanese but does try to hold on to some idea of civility but also stand his own ground on what he feels is right.

Takeshi Kitano is excellent as Sgt. Hara as a POW camp leader who handles punishments and such yet is a more reasonable man due to his growing friendship with Lawrence as well as being someone that cares about tradition as well as understanding the ideas of Western culture. Ryuichi Sakamoto is brilliant as Captain Yonoi as the POW camp commandant who is charged with overseeing the camp as he takes an interest in Celliers while trying to hide his own guilt and shame over an incident that occurred years ago as it is a chilling performance filled with anger and regret. Tom Conti is amazing as Lt. Colonel John Lawrence as a British officer who is trying to be civil with the Japanese as he befriends Sgt. Hara while having concerns for their own ideas including the concept of hara-kiri yet is amazed by their ideas of honor. Finally, there’s David Bowie in a phenomenal performance as Major Jack Celliers as a British officer captured by the Japanese as he tries to defy their orders and punishments while is consumed with guilt over his past as it a performance filled with humor and defiance as well as a sensitivity where Bowie gives a performance for the ages.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a tremendous film from Nagisa Oshima that features great performances from David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Takeshi Kitano. Along with its gorgeous visuals, Sakamoto’s evocative score, and exploration of cultural clashes in a prison camp. It is a film that explore different cultures, intrigue, guilt, and shame in a prison camp where four men are at the center of this emotional turmoil that is happening around them. In the end, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is an outstanding film from Nagisa Oshima.

Nagisa Oshima Films: (Tomorrow’s Sun) - (A Street of Love and Hope) - (Cruel Story of Youth) - (The Sun’s Burial) - (Night and Fog in Japan) - (The Catch) - (The Rebel) - (A Small Child’s First Adventure) - (It’s Me Here, Bellett) - (The Pleasures of the Flesh) - (Yunbogi’s Diary) - (Violence at High Noon) - (Tales of the Ninja/Band of Ninja) - (Sing a Song of Sex (A Treatsie on Japanese Bawdy Songs)) - (Double Suicide: Japanese Summer) - (Death by Hanging) - (Three Resurrected Drunkards) - (Diary of a Shinjuku Thief) - (Boy (1969 film)) - (Man Who Left His Will on Film) - (The Ceremony (1971 film)) - (Dear Summer Sister) – In the Realm of the Senses - Empire of Passion - (Max, Mon Amour) - (Taboo (1999 film))

© thevoid99 2020


Sonia Cerca said...

I don't remember much about it as I've seen it many years ago but I remember liking it, especially Bowie's performance. I remember being very, very impressed by him.

thevoid99 said...

@Sonia-It had been years since I had seen the film as I have been wanting to get the Criterion DVD for a long time but fortunately, TCM showed the film during the Xmas holidays as I wanted to watch it and then post it on what would've been his 73rd birthday.

thisismydisaster said...

Having just watched the movie -- finished minutes ago, now looking up realated trivia, my thoughts are sunk into contemplation of how both Celliars and Hara each look toward their immediate deaths and acknowledge & reflect on their past, Bowie in a dream sequence and Hara in conversation with Lawrence. They both make peace in a way and the film doesn't offer judgment on any difference between a solitaeyspiritual/mentalamends versus a more public verbal amends shared with another human (hara doesn't even understand what he's paying for), or even the active righteous act of Celliers sacrificing himself for Hicksley.
In poor light is cast Yonoi whose apparent guilt and remorse pass without self acknowledgement or self sacrifice. In fact, his weak third party attempt at redemption is to steal in the dark a lock of the sacrificial Celliers' hair and in an unseen action off screen, which we know about only thru Lawrence's retelling, he has another person (Lawrence) deliver the hair to sacred spot after Yonois execution.
By comparison to the other charachters' last minute redemption, the viewer finds comes to feel Yonoi's pitiful effort to be a failure. The filmmaker allows the viewer to come to this discovery on their own.
A gift, a gift about self reflection to peel off the wrappings and further reflect upon.
What a brilliant sad, wonderful movie.