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  Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence The Quality Of Mercy
Year: 1983
Director: Nagisa Ôshima
Stars: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryûichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thompson, Johnny Okura, Alastair Browning, James Malcolm, Chris Broun, Yûya Uchida, Ryûnosuke Kaneda, Takashi Naitô, Tamio Ishikura, Rokko Toura, Kan Mikami
Genre: Drama, WarBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: The place is Java, the year is 1942, and the Japanese have a prisoner of war camp there which houses captured British and Australian troops. They do not see eye to eye, it's safe to say, yet one of the British prisoners, Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti), has some knowledge of Japanese culture and can speak their language, so has struck up a relationship with his guards, including the violent Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano), which his commanding officer, Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson) has no tolerance of. But that is not to say Lawrence truly gets along with the captors...

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence was the first film (mostly) in the English language by Japanese director Nagisa Ôshima, but while he had built up a cult following internationally thanks to his work in the decade previous to this, when it arrived in the early eighties nobody was quite sure what to make of it. It was a prisoner of war movie, that much was certain, but what was all this stuff about sacrifice, homosexuality and the impossibility of East and West to genuinely understand each other? How come nobody was trying to escape? Was there no character in the Steve McQueen role, for instance?

However, given a few years to settle in and this found its feet among Ôshima's aficionados as an effort which might not have been the smoothest of all movie collaborations between two countries thousands of miles apart, but certainly its very strangeness was part of that texture which appealed to those willing to go with it. The plot had the all-male cast trading a battle of wills that culminated in the introduction of a new prisoner, the British major Jack Celliers, played by rock star David Bowie, whose nemesis is Captain Yonoi, played by Ryûichi Sakamoto, also a rock star - possible stunt casting which only added to the off-kilter atmosphere.

Yonoi sees Celliers as a perfect soldier, which he cannot cope with as not only is Celliers not Japanese, but there's a gay attraction between them as well, probably more from Yonoi's side. Celliers was a Christlike figure - we see him effectively "rise from the dead" when he faces a firing squad and none of the bullets make a mark on him, but his true sacrifice will come later on as he saves the whole camp through his bravery. In a curious flashback, his selflessness is shown to stem from a childhood incident (the decidely non-teenage Bowie absurdly playing his schoolboy self) where he failed to save his deformed brother from the class bullies; take from that what you will, but a sense of guilt is noticable throughout.

Guilt that affects the characters in different ways, and hails from their individual ideals of what kind of perfection they should be living up to. This was based on the war memoir of Laurens Van Der Post, and you're tempted to believe it really was like this as it's too bizarre not to be true, but the Laurens stand-in - Conti's Lawrence - is the only one straining to provide a bridge between two factions, one who see prisoners as weak for preferring jail to death, even at their own hands, and the other who view the guards as hopelessly barbaric and at odds with anything approaching humanity. At most you could take away the message that war does very abnormal things to those who fight in it, and if they'd all step back and accept their differences they'd get along a lot better. Throughout this comes across as an unwieldy enterprise, yet reach that final scene where Sakamoto's marvellous music wells up on the soundtrack and you'll see this is a very sorrowful film, and whatever your misgivings it has done something right, whether you can quite grasp it or not.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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