Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), DVD Review

Directed by Nagisa Oshima

Written by:
Dan Schneider
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Of the six films of Japanese director Nagisa Oshima that I have seen, his 1983 color film “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (“Senjō No Merī Kurisumasu or 戦場のメリークリスマス”) is easily his least impressive. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s not particularly good either. The acting is hit and miss, the screenplay is anomic (part “M*A*S*H,” without the humor, and part “The Bridge On The River Kwai,” without the drama, but loads of melodrama)- and includes utterly pointless flashback sequences, the cinematography is dull and listless, and the film’s musical score is simply one of the worst and most inartfully applied for any major film I can recall. In short, it’s atrocious. No, it’s beyond atrocious to the point that it’s inappropriate, and almost utterly worthless, as both stand alone music, but most especially as an accompaniment to the moving images onscreen.
The 123 minute film, unlike “Kwai,” starts out with mostly British POWs in Java, in 1942. They are in a POW camp, held by the conquering Japanese. The film follows the addition of a rebellious British major, Jack Celliers (David Bowie), a guerilla who has surrendered and been sent to a camp that holds two other British officers, Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti), a Nipponophile, and Colonel Hicksley (Jack Thompson). The camp is run by Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto, a Japanese pop star of the day), an old style worshipper of feudal traditions and Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano), a brutal, yet human, henchman. Yonoi and Celliers develop a bizarre homo-erotic attraction (which reaches its apex during a fake firing squad moment), and each has macho failings in their pasts- Yonoi for missing out on a failed coup plot and Celliers for being unable to prevent his little brother from a hazing. The film also follows several other homosexual arcs, including the pederastic rape of a Dutch soldier by a Korean guard, who is forced to commit hara-kiri.
The whole arc is so Postmodern that it’s almost embarrassing to see it transposed back to an era before these things were even in play. Eventually, Celliers destroys Yonoi’s career by publicly kissing him, and Celliers is condemned to death by being buried, up to his neck, in sand, by the C.O. who replaces the disgraced Yonoi. The film then abruptly shifts to four years later, where Lawrence visits Sergeant Hara, imprisoned by Allied forces. He has learned to speak English and will be executed the next day. He reminisces over the Christmas he freed Celliers and Lawrence, and says he dreamt of Celliers. In this final scene we learn Yonoi died before war’s end. As Lawrence leaves Hara’s cell, Hara says to him, ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.’
The film was adapted, by Oshima and Paul Mayersberg, from a series of novels written by Laurens Van Der Post, mainly “The Seed And The Sower.” I have not read the source material, but there just has to be more than the little given here. Sakemoto, who played Yonoi, also was allowed to score the film, his first film score, and it shows. The best scenes in the film are actually those without musical scoring. The electronica score is just so anachronistic it makes one wonder why Oshima went in this direction. Toichiro Narushima’s cinematography does not really take advantage of the physical beauty of Java, as the film feels like mostly a stage play put to film. Also notable is that the film’s transfer, shown in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, is not of the highest quality. There are numerous flaws and a general blanched out look to the film, as if exposed too long to daylight. Then there is the acting. The only actor of any worth in the piece is Conti. The Japanese overact, and the white cast basically scenery chew, especially Thompson. Bowie’s performance is simply so non-1940s as to be almost comic in its camp. The flashback scenes serve no purpose and could be summarized in a few lines of dialogue. Given the Japanese and English spoken, the Japanese is in subtitles.
The two disk DVD package, from The Criterion Collection, could have easily been squeezed on to one disk, for disk One has merely the film and original theatrical trailer, with no audio commentary. This is a downright disgrace, for Oshima is barely known in the West, and despite this not being a good film, his overall oeuvre deserves critical attention. Criterion’s skimping on DVD releases since their switch to the semi-circle C logo is an outright ripoff, considering the sky-high prices the company charges for DVDs. Disk Two, however, has some features that redeem the skimping on an audio commentary. There’s a half hour long featurette called “The Oshima Gang;”and it is a good behind the scenes look at how the film was made. Then there is a terrific hour long documentary o the life and thoughts of Laurens Van De Post, called “Hasten Slowly;” which shows that the man upon whom the film is based was not just a writer, but a philosopher and activist for human rights, as well as for the natural world. There are also several excellent smaller interview sections, starting with 40 minutes of On Location interviews with Sakamoto, Conti, and producer Jeremy Thomas, which digs in to the joint production of the film, with an international cast; an “On The Music” documentary of 18 minutes, that allows Sakamoto to speak of his score, although the best thing about it is his admission that he had no clue in what he was doing, for that shines through every moment of scored material in the film; a 28 minute “On The Screenplay” documentary, which features co-screenwriter Paul Mayersberg; and an insert booklet with a new interview with Kitano, an old interview with Oshima, and an essay by film critic Chuck Stephens. All are fine extras, but it’s the Van Der Post documentary that’s the crown jewel of the package; more so than even the feature film. In fact, I would have preferred if the one hour documentary was double its length, and the fictive film half its.
That said, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” despite its major flaws, is not a terrible film, merely an example of where good intentions can doom art. Seen in that context, it does have moments of humor and enjoyment, but its ‘realism’ is so lacking, in so many ways, that it really could have been set in outer space, with little fundamental change to the motivations of the lead characters. Beyond that, though, grit your teeth and try to stay awake.

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