Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), which is based on an autobiographical novel by the South African adventurer-soldier Laurens van der Post, is a homo-erotic culture clash set in a World War 2 internment camp. This film's international rock-star casting and multi-lingual dialog reflects an obvious attempt by Oshima and his producer Jeremy Thomas to reach a broader international audience. This experiment in commerciality isn't entirely successful. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is good, but it falls short of the high bar set by the Oshima's prior works.
The film is set in Java in 1942. Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) is a colonel in the Japanese army who, along with brutal Sergeant Gengo Hara (a young pre-accident Takeshi Kitano), lords over a P.O.W. camp. Life in the camp, which is mostly filed with British soldiers, is a daily struggle against death, torture, starvation, and the sexual allure of sweaty men packed together in dismal conditions. Yonoi is romantically obsessed with a new prisoner named Celliers (David Bowie). Yonoi saves his object of desire from being executed -- the occupiers believe that he is helping the local rebels -- by sending him to the P.O.W. camp. Among the occupants of the camp is Lawrence (Tom Conti) who speaks Japanese and acts as liason between the captors and the captured.
Narratively, it takes quite a while for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence to crank up. Oshima and Paul Mayersberg's script initially alternates between the cruel and sexually charged atmosphere of the camp and the inquisition of Celliers at the hands of Yonoi and the military. Once Celliers joins the prisoners, the story begins to cohere. Celliers, who Lawrence describes as a "soldier's solider, begins to crack. He reflects on his life in a series of flashbacks. We begin to understand more about who actually he is and what makes him so respected (and desired). He is the only character whose life is explored with such depth. Yonoi is presented as a traditional Japanese military officer with a tinge of Yukio Mishima, but he largely remains a mystery. The script doesn't provide much background on Mr. Lawrence, either.
Per Oshima's usual style, the direction is stagy with an emphasis on performances instead of elaborate setups or camera moves. Visually, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is as far removed from the lush romantic worlds of In the Realm of the Senses and Empire of Passion as possible. The film has a muted color palette dominated by green foliage, bamboo tans and khaki uniforms. Night scenes tend to have a bluish-green tint while Cellier's flashbacks are bright and dream-like with vivid colors.
Oshima's biggest challenge here was in handling the actors, specifically the leads. David Bowie was an experienced actor; his minimalistic performance is very compelling. Tom Conti carries the weight of the narrative, deftly switching between English and Japanese. Ryuichi Sakamato, who also composed the score, doesn't fare so well. His lack of experience -- he was a solely a musician -- really shows. He was trying too hard. His task wasn't helped by being forced to deliver most of his lines in English. In this same regard, there is an awkwardness in the way the Japanese cast, many of whom also spoked limited English, interact with the European actors. Given the setting, it makes some amount of sense. How else would one expect Japanese military to interact with prisoners unfamiliar with their native tongue? Such rationalizations can't explain away the awkwardness, though.
Criterion's Blu-Ray presents Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence film in the1.78:1 aspect ratio, which fills the screens on widescreen displays. The Blu-Ray was made from a newly restored 2K interpositive transfer. The image is clean yet unscrubbed film-like image. DNR has been used sparingly, if at all. This is a one of the grainiest Criterion transfers I have seen so those looking for a bright snappy image may balk.
The soundtrack is in DTS-HD Master Audio. As previously mentioned, the film is acted in English and Japanese. Thus, English subtitles are provided. Extras include a 1983 featurette called Oshima's Gang; a 1996 documentary called Hasten Slowly: The Journey of Sir Laurens van der Post; and interviews with producer Jeremy Thomas, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tom Conti, and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg. A thick booklet with a Chuck Stephens essay, an Oshima interview from 1983, and a Takeshi Kitano interview from 2010 completes the package.