Based on the experiences of Laurens van der Post, chronicled in his novels “The Seed and the Sower” (1963) and “The Night of the New Moon” (1970), Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) tells the story of British soldiers interned by the Japanese as prisoners of war during World War II and the culture clash which ensues. The film focuses on four men : on the Japanese side of things, we have Captain Yonoi and Sergent Hara. The British gentlemen in question are new prisoner Jack Celliers (known for being a “soldier’s soldier”) and Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence. Yonoi is the camp comandant who develops a peculiar fascination with the rebellious Celliers while friendship develops between the seemingly brutal Hara and Mr. Lawrence, due in large part to Lawrence’s ability to speak fluent Japanese and attempts to understand their culture.
The main focus of the film is on the startling differences between the Japanese and British view of honor, discipline, loyalty and glory. The strict code that the Japanese adhere to has Yonoi and Hara viewing the British soldiers as cowards – honor demands that they kill themselves rather than submit to the enemy. An incident of sexual abuse involving a Dutch prisoner and a Korean guard sets off an ethical debate between Hara and Lawrence which continues throughout the film, just as Lawrence is put at odds with the stubborn British camp captain, who sees Lawrence as a traitor for his attempts to understand and explain the Japanese way of life. Meanwhile, Yonoi’s interest in the rebellious Jack Celliers deepens into an almost erotic obsession. It’s a love/hate relationship between all four men in this very layered and brutally intense tale.
The film was directed by Nagisa Oshima, who apparently is a big deal in Japan. I’ve never heard of the guy, but watching the film, along with the hours and hours of extras that are included in this Criterion Collection Blu-Ray, I understand why he is so revered. The man doesn’t shy away from tough subject matter; rather, he shines a rather intense spotlight on it. The film itself is unflinching and raw while leaving enough to the imagination to inspire hours of discussion and debate about its themes. Especially helpful are the previously mentioned extras. “The Oshima Gang” is a 1983 making-of featurette and “Hasten Slowly” is an hour-long documentary about Laurens van der Post, whose autobiographical novels supplied the basis of the film. Brand new interviews with the screenwriter, producer and stars shed new light on what went on behind the scenes. Basically, it provides exactly what you’d expect a Criterion Blu-Ray to provide – exhaustingly indepth insight. If you’re a fan of Nagisa Oshima… well, you’ve probably already picked it up for its high definition restoration alone. But anyone interested in film, from casual film buff to analytical student, will be delighted by not only the film but the extras as well.
I suppose I can’t write a review without mentioning David Bowie. He’s one of the stars and though I heard a few sour reviews regarding his performance, I didn’t find any problem with it save for the fact that judging by his haircut, he must’ve stepped directly from the set of the “Let’s Dance” video to the film shoot. It was a little out of place. Nevertheless, I felt he was perfectly cast as Jack Celliers, as was his opposite, Japanese mucisian Ryuichi Sakamoto (Yonoi) who also provided the haunting score. Hell, everybody in this movie was perfectly cast, right down to the last POW and their guards. The movie wasn’t exactly a Saturday night popcorn flick, but if you’re looking for something thought-provoking and unsettling, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” is your film.
The Blu-Ray also contains the original theatrical trailer and a 120-page booklet packed with essays and interviews on the film. It’s been restored and remastered and is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, which means nothing to me as a layman, but ought to be important to film buffs.Tags: blu-ray, review, david bowie