(Nagisa Oshima, New Zealand/Japan/UK, 1983) 123 minutes


Director: Nagisa Oshima
Producer: Jeremy Thomas
Screenplay: Nagisa Oshima, Paul Mayersberg,
  based on the novel The Seed and the
by Laurens van der Post
Cinematography: Toichiro Narushima
Editor: Tomoyo Oshima
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto
David Bowie: Major Jack "Straffer" Celliers
Tom Conti: Colonel John Lawrence
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Captain Yonoi
Takeshi Kitano: Sergeant Gengo Hara
Jack Thompson: Group Captain Hicksley
Johnny Okura: Kanemoto
Alister Browning: De Jong
James Malcolm: Celliers' Brother

Reviews and notes

In memory of Nagisa Oshima (1932 - 2013)

1983 Cannes
2009 Thessaloniki

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence features two rock icons as arch-nemeses in a World War II POW camp in Java in 1942. David Bowie plays Celliers, an upper crust New Zealand major, responsible for the British POWs’ morale; Ryuichi Sakamoto, who contributed the film’s hypnotically spare music track, plays Yonoi, the fanatical camp commander whose Mishima-like obsession with hara-kiri is replaced by his growing fixation on his androgynous blonde prisoner. Sharing tea and a mystification with each other’s code of honour, the two joust over cultural differences, Orient vs Occident, their civility barely masking desire, until a series of incidents in the camp locks the commanders in direct conflict. Takeshi Kitano plays unhinged Sergeant Hara who utters the film’s famous title as he drunkenly impersonates Santa Claus. A sensation at the Cannes film festival, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence has often been described as a "thinking man’s Bridge on the River Kwai."
- Cinematheque Ontario.

One of the finest offshore features financed by tax-sheltered New Zealand investment was Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, made by the distinguished Japanese director Nagisa Oshima. Oshima had made 21 movies, several of which I had bought for film society screenings. Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, his first feature outside Japan, was shot in Auckland and Rarotonga, with Englishman Jeremy Thomas as producer and Larry Parr, whose former Broadbank colleagues helped raise the finance, as an associate producer.

On the day the prospectus was issued we sent a messenger a few blocks along The Terrace from the Film Commission office to collect a copy. By the time it arrived the film had been over-subscribed. I knew several people who were investors. They seemed very pleased with the deal. The film, starring David Bowie, Tom Conti and Jack Thompson as Japanese prisoners of war, was selected for competition at Cannes in 1983. Lee Tamahori, who wouldn't direct his first feature until Once Were Warriors ten years later, was first assistant director.
- Lindsay Shelton, The Selling of New Zealand Movies, Awa Press, 2005.

By no means an easy picture to deal with, this thinking man's version of The Bridge On The River Kwai makes no concessions to the more obvious commercial requirements, unless it is the selection of David Bowie, the pop star, for the leading dramatic role, which has no singing whatsoever in it (it even includes a joke, when the Bowie character, Celliers, reflects that he would like to be able to sing but he can't).

The strongest points of the script, penned by Oshima and Paul Mayersberg from a novel by South African author Laurens van der Post, are the philosophical and emotional implications brought up in a careful and intricate comparison between Orient and Occident on every possible level.

The weakest point is its construction, sturdy and compact up to the point when it has to use flash-backs in order to, explain the British side of the allegory. Once this is done, the tense, sharply-focused atmosphere of a Japanese prisoner camp in Java, during World War II, tends to disintegrate, the picture slipping from a powerful, many-sided realistic story, to a fable, cleverly contrived and certainly very meaningful intellectually, but losing some of its emotional weight because of it.

The plot has a Japanese captain, Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), trying to impose his own ideas, of discipline, honor, order and obedience, in a clash with a British major, Celliers (David Bowie), represents the diametrically opposed train of thought. Yet there are many similarities between these two, not the least being that they both feel confined, Celliers since he is a prisoner, Yonoi because he had been denied the right to face his enemy on equal terms at the front.

There is also a strong homosexual fascination working between them, which helps build up the film's climax, and both carry over from the past guilty feelings they try to expiate, each in his own way.

The conflict between the two leading figures is better verbalized by Colonel Lawrence (Tom Conti), who lends his name to the film's title, and Hara (Takeshi), the Japanese sergeant whose popular origins allow him much more freedom of emotions and of expressions than anything his commander could afford.

Lawrence, an intellectual who speaks Japanese and is in some ways the bridge between the two poles, believes that he understands his enemy and knows how he should be handled, which of course he doesn't, while Hara can display extreme violence and cruelty, but is also capable of kindness and bursts of humor that no self-respecting Japanese officer would allow himself.

The film's conclusion, in an epilog taking place in 1946 (another one of those leaps and bounds which mark the script construction in the second part of the film) is quite explicit: Orient and Occident may indeed be vastly different in every respect, but they are both victims of leaders who believe they are always right, while the truth is no one can always be right.

Oshima handles directorial chores with a sure hand he knows exactly what he wants to achieve and there seems to be perfect understanding between him and his crew. There is remarkable consistency in the rhythm, shape and atmosphere of the prisoner camp scenes, which accentuates all the more the incongruity of flashbacks to England that are out of tune with the rest of the picture.

Out of tune, but on purpose, is also Bowie when he attempts to open his mouth and sing. Bowie plays his part straight, no make-up displays and no eccentric behavior and does a remarkably credible job. Conti shows much intelligence, feeling and pain in the part of Coloner Lawrence, while Jack Thompson brings to the part of Colonel Hicksley something of Alec Guinness' performance in The Bridge On The River Kwai.

On the Japanesee, side, Ryuichi Sakamoto gives a perfectly stylized performance as the code-bound commander of the prisoner camp, and also contributes highly original soundtrack music, which confirms the talent that has made him one of the top Japanese musicians today. Takeshi,a comic of wide following in Japan, manages to imply both sadism and good humor in the part of Hara.

Excellent photography add to the impressive credits of this, which needs careful handling but could attract mainstream audiences outside the art house boundaries which were Oshima's until now.
- Edna, Variety, 25 May 1983 (reporting from Cannes).

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