Friday, January 09, 2009

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

The Brattle was showing Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence as a not-quite double bill with another one of Nagisa Oshima's films, In the Realm of the Senses, in that they were playing back-to-back in the same theater but were separate admission. I will reluctantly admit to chickening out on that one, though: It was only running at 9:30pm, I hadn't yet had dinner on the Monday where I saw Mr. Lawrence, and other excuses come freely, but let's face it: I was mainly squeamish upon seeing the NC-17 rating, although in my defense, my quick attempts to find out what the film was actually about mainly led to comments like "it's porn, but good porn." Which isn't really helpful; I get that it's an adult film vs. an "adult film", but is it something that would interest me?

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 January 2009 at The Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a double dose of boutique film: On the one side, it gives us a story of would-be samurai confronting the limits of their code; on the other, a tragedy of the English gentry. Both are genres with an (often deserved) reputation for being overly formal, and while Nagisa Oshima does make a movie that is occasionally admirable when it could be engaging, he doesn't just deliver twice as much stuffiness in one package.

The would-be samurai are the Japanese army during World War II, specifically Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), who administers a prisoner of war camp on Java in 1942. Recently captured Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) is the scion of a wealthy English family. Yonoi convinces the military tribunal to spare Celliers's life, but finds that Celliers is not quite what he expects. While those two find their minds occupied by questions of honor, others at the camp - Sgt. Hara (Takeshi Kitano), commander of the guards; Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson), the ranking prisoner; and Col. John Lawrence (Tom Conti), who lived in Japan before the war and speaks the language - worry about more practical concerns.

As with many war films, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence has an all-male cast, and it doesn't shrink from what that may imply: In one of the very first scenes, Hara yanks Lawrence out of bed to assist him in deal with a Korean guard found having intercourse with a Dutch prisoner. The film stops just short of specifying it to be rape, although it certainly suggests that shame and punishment are being unfairly visited upon the presumed victim. There are speeches about how war strengthens the bonds between men, but not in that way. For all it protests against any charges of homo-eroticism, it is, among other things, a story of the unrequited love at first sight one man has for another.

Even though we're given very little insight into Yonoi's thoughts, you can tell that's what's going on from how we see Celliers. All the other men in the camp, prisoners and guards alike, are tanned, of course, but Celliers is golden; it's little wonder Hicksley sees him as a threat to his position and Lawrence is so deferential despite his higher rank. The only times Celliers doesn't look otherworldly is in his own flashbacks, which are a fine pastiche of English manor dramas. Not all of the film's visual appeal is focused on him, of course - Oshima does not shy from relatively graphic depictions of how poorly nourished Allied prisoners were in a Japanese POW camp, and also frames shots in the camp with shots familiar from samurai dramas, even while also showing that the traditional design motifs are far from a perfect fit to the current situation.

The film is not just about Celliers and Yonoi, though, and the rest is in many ways more interesting. It consists in large part of Lawrence and Hara handling more practical matters, but as they go about doing so, they learn about each other, personally and culturally. Some of that is Lawrence explaining things to Hara, but it's more than that: We see Hara absorb that knowledge like a sponge, while Lawrence reacts to seeing Japanese military culture in visceral, immediate action, finding it quite different from what he learned before the war. It's quite a notable pair of performances: Conti is quietly impressive as the English soldier who is quietly but often humorously stoic in the face of war, as is Jack Thompson. Takeshi Kitano would later become one of the biggest and most respected names in Japanese cinema, and his youth and vitality took me off guard, since I only knew him from later, roles. He's got both the arrogance and ability to grow that define youth here, while his more recent films generally portray him as much more settled. It's only fitting that the film always comes back to these two, no matter what else is going on.

Bowie and Sakamoto are impressive, too, Sakamoto especially, since the film tells very little of his character's story but we are still able to see Yonoi as a multifaceted individual. Sakamoto also composes the film's striking score (he is a musician by trade). Oshima does occasionally let the story get away from him, as he will often decide to concentrate on an image or skip over details which don't necessarily have much to do with the ideas he is trying to express, even though their absense may frustrate the more story-focused viewers.

It does keep the purity of the themes, primarily the stated one about how war sharpens the bonds between men. We see how that's not always true, and how sometimes it is the most true when they are on opposite sides.

Also at HBS, along with one other review.

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