MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE
Review by Gordon Justesen
Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thompson
Director: Nagisa Oshima
Audio: DTS HD 2.0
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Features: See Review
Length: 122 Minutes
Release Date: September 28, 2010
“Do you feel uneasy?”
I'm all for the expression of bold statements in films, and Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is certainly a film with many statements to express. I'm also in favor of films expressing statements in a subtle manner, and Oshima is a filmmaker who clearly specializes in this. The problem though, and this may come across as a personal matter, is that Oshima manages to be too subtle at points, while being way too on the nose during other moments.
The film came out in 1983, and was both Oshima's first English language feature and an adaptation of an acclaimed novel based on one man's experience reflected by a pivotal character in the story. The novel in question is “The Seed and the Sower” by Laurens van der Post, who in the film is represented by the character of Lawrence (Tom Conti), a British colonel who found himself in a Japanese POW camp during WW2. Though there as a prisoner, Lawrence (who speaks fluent Japanese) also serves as an interpreter between the Japanese and any English speaking soldiers that might one day enter the camp.
Such is the case when Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie), a fellow British soldier, arrives on the camp grounds. And his arrival triggers the main conflict of the story, which is the unusual relationship that develops between him and Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), a camp commander. Yonoi grows to become somewhat obsessed with the blond Englishman, and in ways considered forbidden in that time.
This sudden and unexpected obsession between Yonoi and Celliers soon elevates into a contest of wills. Every order Yonoi gives seems to get defied by Celliers, most notably when he picks edible flowers for all of his bunk mates after being ordered to a period of fasting. And Yonoi's masking of his sexual frustration has a strong effect on how he treats his prisoners.
The main problem with the film is that it starts to lose its focus about midway, telling three separate stories within the prison camp and not devoting equal time to all of them. What starts with Yonoi's fascination with Celliers is soon forgotten as we are then focused on Lawrence and his experiences in the camp, in particular his exchanges with Sgt. Hara (Takeshi Kitano), a bond that leads to the uttering of the film's title. But then, we are once again focused on Celliers recalling an event from the past that has left him with regret.
Oshima's film has so much going on, and it has some truly powerful messages to get across, that it can only lead to something of a fumbled mess. And storytelling-wise, that's what this is. Had the film been more tightly edited, I think we would've ended up with one fantastic piece.
Having said that, there are two elements about Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence that must be praised, the first of which are the performances which are across the boards phenomenal. Oshima's cast of British and Asian actors blend together in mesmerizing fashion. It's also kind of unique to see acclaimed musicians Bowie and Sakamoto in the roles of the two men at odds with one another. As for Tom Conti, this is quite easily his finest moment on film and Takeshi is undeniably effective in his first big acting role.
The second element is the riveting and ultimately haunting score provided by Sakamoto. Some may find the score a little dated, and to a certain degree it kind of is. But it's one of those pieces of film music that is awfully unique and leaves an effect on you long after you've seen the film, much like any score from Tangerine Dream, who were composing many films during the early 80s.
With all it's bold and envelope pushing qualities, from a political standpoint, you almost want to give a film like Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence a pass. But so much ends up getting jumbled up in the film's narrative, that it's simply hard to get invested in the film's story or any of the characters. It all comes down to the notion that the film could have been saved by a much better and more efficient job in the editing room.
Oshima's film is also incredibly gorgeous to gaze at, and with Criterion once again lending their four-star treatment to Blu-ray releases, the astounding quality is pretty much worth every penny spent on the disc. Oshima and his cinematographer, Toichiro Narushima, do a most incredible job of making the Japanese prison camp setting seem entirely authentic. Daytime shots are nothing short of breathtaking, especially when you catch glimpses of the sunlit palm trees and mountains in the background. Nighttime sequences are also a treat for the eyes, and the beam of blue is seen frequently and is absolutely beautiful to look at in the 1080p. Criterion proves, yet again, that they are the top masters of making a picture from any time period look truly top of the line in high def.
Don't let the 2.0 mix throw you off, as Criterion still finds magnificent ways for their DTS HD mix to shine. The biggest highlight, of course, is the sounding performance of the Ryuichi Sakamoto's amazing score. I mentioned earlier that it leaves quite an effect on you long after you see the movie, and much of that is due to the way it sounds in this format, which simply can't be beat. Dialogue delivery is crystal clear from beginning to end, and the surrounding sounds of the prison camp setting provide many various background sounds to show off nicely.
Criterion never fails on extraordinary extras, and this Blu-ray release illustrates that fact perfectly. We don't get a commentary track, but what is provided more than makes up for that absence. First off is the 1983 featurette titled “The Oshima Gang”, which is more in-depth than you'd expect from an early 80s featurette as it features interviews from numerous cast and crew members. There's also new video interviews with producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, actor Tom Conti and actor/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. There's also an hour long documentary titled “Hasten Slowly”, which is entirely about novelist Laurens van der Post, whose autobiography inspired the film. Rounding out the extras is the Original Theatrical Trailer, newly improved English subtitle translation and a fantastic insert booklet which includes an essay by film writer Chuck Stephens and reprinted interviews with both Nagisa Oshima and Takeshi Kitano.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence has all the proper ingredients for a truly powerful and important film. It just becomes an unfortunate casualty of flawed editing, thus resulting in something of a jumbled mess. But it does have some merits of value and because it is now available through Criterion on a stunning Blu-ray, I can't really suggest that you don't check it out.