Sunday, November 18, 2012

FORGOTTEN GEM? Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

           “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” is a POW movie set in Java in 1942.  It was directed by Japanese director Nagise Oshima and has a multi-national cast.  The movie was based on the semi-autobiographical novel entitled The Seed and the Sower by Sir Laurens van der Post.  It is the rare POW movie that does not have an escape or escape attempt.

                Col. Lawrence (Tom Conti)  is bilingual and having lived in Japan before the war acts as a liaison between the British prisoners and the Japanese administration of the camp.  The movie opens with the seppuku of a Korean guard for homosexual acts with a Dutch prisoner.  Lawrence and other prisoners are forced to witness this  His paramour bites his tongue (literally) and chokes on it.  The scene establishes the theme of homosexuality that runs throughout the film and clues us in on the fact that this will be a different kind of POW movie.

Bowie as Celliers
                Maj. Jack Celliers (David Bowie) is a commando leader who had been parachuted into the Javan jungle to conduct guerrilla warfare.  He is captured and the commandant Capt. Yonai (Japanese pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto) inexplicably argues at his murder trial that he should be treated as a POW.  This does not prevent him going before a firing squad which proceeds to miss so he ends up in the camp.  I am not making this up.

                The camp features two intriguing relationships.  Lawrence is paired with the sadistic Sgt. Hara (Takeshi Kitano).  Yonai and Celliers are the other pair.  There is a definite homoerotic vibe in this which means Bowie can just play himself.  Yonai may be attracted to Celleirs, but he sees him as an evil spirit (I guess because he stirs Yonai’s samurai loins).  Yonai throws Celliers and Lawrence into cells because of a contraband radio.  Yonai’s batman tries to kill Celliers on behalf of his boss, but Celliers beats him up and tries to rescue Lawrence.  Yonai foils this and challenges Celliers to a duel which Celliers refuses.  This demon is not going to go easy.

                A flashback attempts to provide Celliers with a back-story that explains his strangeness.  Unfortunately, the flashback to boarding school is so weird a normal person will have a WTF reaction.  Something about his younger brother being forced to sing (which he does like an angel).

Celliers at the beach
                Meanwhile, Hara plays Santa Claus by releasing Lawrence (“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”) and Celliers.  Apparently a sergeant can go over the head of the camp commandant in this camp.  Yonai orders all the prisoners assembled and is going to behead the British commander when Celliers walks up to him and kisses him.  Yonai knows he should use his katana on this insolent Englishman, but he’s just so attractive!  He collapses in homoerotic confusion.  The guards beat up Celliers instead.  The new camp commandant shows his heterosexuality by burying Celliers up to the neck.  Yonai comes to visit him and takes a lock of his hair.  It is unclear whether this is done post mortem.

"Those were the good old days"
                Suddenly the movie jumps four years to 1946.  Hara is to be executed for war crimes which seems appropriate considering what he does in the movie.  Lawrence comes to visit him.  He empathizes with this misunderstood man who routinely beat him in the camp.  Who’s to say who was right in the war, right?  They have a nice chat and reminisce about that special Christmas moment they shared.

                This movie is polarizing.  You either love it or hate it.  Not surprisingly I fall into the "hated it" group.  The characters are inconsistent.  Yonai and Hara are sometimes evil, sometimes humane.  Celliers is just plain weird.  Lawrence is bipolar (or suffering from Stockholm Syndrome).  The acting has been complemented by some critics, but is truthfully pedestrian.  Bowie is simply not a good actor.  A movie starring two pop stars has problems.

                The movie seems to revel in its unorthodoxy.  Even the sound track is new age.  It was composed by Sakamoto.  Put me down amongst those that do not want new age music in my war movies.  I also prefer for my plots to be coherent and for flashbacks to add to the understanding of the narrative instead of adding to the confusion.  Much of the actions of the main characters make no sense even under the circumstances they were put in.  Lawrence is supposed to be the sane center, but his relationship with Hara is infuriating.

                To speak of “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” as one of the best POW movies is foolish.  If you want to admire it for being different (albeit different bad), so be it.  I have seen many POW movie and this is the worst.

Rating – F
the whole movie


  1. I've heard a theory that this movie is not really about WWII, but is some sort of allegory about culture clash, or about Western exploitation of Asia. If so, it would have made more sense to set the story in China during the Opium Wars or the Boxer Rebellion, instead of a Japanese POW camp in 1942. Especially since WWII was one case in which the Japanese were the aggressors.

  2. That is an interesting theory. I don't think the movie was meant to be that deep. If it were about the clash of cultures, it could have been clearer.


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