Based on the novel by Laurens van der Post comes a film that brings out one of David Bowie’s best performances.
The year is 1942. During World War II, a band of British soldiers are forced to serve time at a Japanese prison camp due to their actions against the Japanese. While most of the soldiers are relegated to punishment and hard labor, one such soldier, General Lawrence seems to have earned the respect of the commanding officer General Yonoi and his number one, Sergeant Hara. Lawrence has the ability to speak Japanese fluently and acts as a “bridge” between the English and the Japanese. While Yonoi has nothing but hatred towards the prisoners, all of that changes when respected British soldier Jack Celliers enters the prison camp. Yonoi seems to change his ways as he sees Jack as a man of respect. However, the lives of the prisoners change one fateful Christmas Day.
Director Nagisa Oshima has the respect of being both a Japanese auteur and quite a controversial figure in the world of cinema. He has tackled many taboos in his film career. With this film, based on a novel by former war veteran Laurens van der Post, what may look like respect between a pair of Japanese soldiers and a pair of British soldiers takes a bit beyond that but on a subconscious level. However, Oshima is a respectful artist and when he came up with the name of the film, perhaps to pay homage to author van der Post by spelling “Laurens” as “Lawrence”. Perhaps, Oshima wanted to present the film to van der Post as a tribute to the author’s real-life exploits as a prisoner of war in World War II Japan.
The film brings out a sense of homoeroticism but done not in the manner of films like Brokeback Mountain, but in a more subliminal level, especially between David Bowie’s Jack Celliers and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s General Yonoi. This could be said to be seen on the level of Yonoi, who looks to be sporting eyeliner and rouge under the right lighting. Whether Oshima perhaps meant to show Yonoi as an effeminant soldier as if he has a heart or even bringing out an homage to Bowie’s famous Ziggy Stardust character, is never truly known. The homoeroticism is seen when Jack is forced to stop Yonoi from executing a fellow British officer the day after Christmas.
While the level between Yonoi and Jack can be said to have a sense of homoeroticism, the respect between Tom Conti’s titular character of Lawrence and Takeshi Kitano’s Hara is clearly a sense of respect and perhaps, seniority between the two as Conti may be seen as British and an enemy to the Japanese. However, in the military aspect, Lawrence has a higher ranking of Hara. It seems as if at times, Hara shows respect to Lawrence not only because of his fluency in Japanese, but perhaps because of his military rank as well. This is clearly evident in the fated Christmas Day scene, where a drunken Hara decides to release Lawrence after he attempts to escape the prison camp. Hara, who usually speaks in Japanese, belts out the titular phrase in English. Kitano, a former stand-up comedian, makes his dramatic debut here and admits, it was this very film that influenced him to become a director, mostly in the yakuza eiga genre.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is truly a film for the ages. It is clear that David Bowie breaks through as an actor here, with Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tom Conti, and Takeshi Kitano giving great support. Truly a Nagisa Oshima classic!
WFG Rating: A+
A National Film Trustee Co. Ltd production. Director: Nagisa Oshima. Producer: Jeremy Thomas. Writers: Nagisa Oshima and Paul Mayersberg; based on the novel “The Seed and the Sower” by Laurens van der Post. Cinematography: Toichiro Narushima. Editing: Tomoya Oshima.
Cast: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thompson.