‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’ casts Bowie in an unusual treatise on war

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Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

Directed by Nagisa Ôshima

United Kingdom/Japan, 1983

David Bowie’s golden hair stands out on the burnt island of Rarotonga. He doesn’t fit into the landscape. He doesn’t fit with his Japanese captors. He certainly doesn’t fit with his fellow imprisoned British soldiers. Like Terence Stamp in Pasolini’s Teorema, Bowie’s Jack Celliers lands square in the midst of foreign territory and sends everything and everyone into a rebellious and subtly sexual upheaval.

Jack Celliers (aka ‘Strafer’ Jack) is tossed into a WWII prison camp run by the charismatic, unbalanced, and frequently violent Gengo Hara (a young, pre-scar Takeshi Kitano). Hara already has an uneasy relationship with another British prisoner John Lawrence (Tom Conti), which oscillates from friendly to cruel. Captain Yonoi (Japanese rock star Ryûichi Sakamoto, who also composed the film’s iconic score) first meets Celliers when the latter is on trial and immediately (and silently) falls for the man. These odd relationships – Yonoi’s unspoken, forbidden love of Celliers, and Hara’s unpredictable friendship with Lawrence – are what drives the film.

On the surface Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence may well be legendary director Nagisa Ôshima’s tamest film. Gone is the formal rigor of Violence at Noon, the youth- driven, New Wave malaise of Cruel Story of Youth, the dark absurdism of Death by Hanging, or the shocking sexual explicitness of In The Realm of the Senses. In fact, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence feels downright classical. Ôshima’s camera glides and rarely obtrudes. The narrative is mostly linear and non-fragmented.

But don’t let Bowie and the rest of the simplistic veneer feel you. Ôshima’s filmmaking is as sharp and divisive as always. Taking bits from Stalag 17, Bridge on the River Kwai, and other classic war films, the director removes much of the heralded machismo and escapades of these forerunners and replaces their jingoist plotting with brooding repression.

The film opens with a makeshift trial sequence where a Korean soldier is accused of homosexuality. He commits hara-kiri, not necessarily by choice, foregrounding Yonoi’s predicament and continuing Ôshima’s dissection of Japanese derision for Korea.

Ôshima has Sakamoto heavily painted in makeup, giving him a doll-like, almost outlandish and childlike façade. Bowie brings a heaviness with him to his role, but his delicate, Ziggy Stardust features don’t so much complement Sakamoto’s as match them. Their interplay is nymph-like and the silence surrounding it echoes of the shyness of a childish love story.

Contrast this with Kitano and Conti, both of whom are worn, loud and tired. Kitano’s Hara invites Conti’s Lawrence to speak and ends up striking him violently. He excuses Lawrence and Celliers from a possible death sentence because he’s drunk. The volatility explicit in his character and Lawrence’s reactions to it is rather like two wronged lovers who keep coming back for more. There is, in fact, a sexuality even to this relationship. It’s one masked with masculine ideals and stereotypes, but whose ultimate tenderness is revealed in the final sequence, in which the roles of captor and captive have been reversed.

A distant cousin to Ôshima’s 1999 film Taboo, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is also a microcosmic treatise on war, where compassion and hostility are spoken in the same breath.

Neal Dhand

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