Thursday, October 4, 2012

Ho-Ho-Huh?: "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" (1983)



Not to be confused with "A Christmas Story", this film is a brutal look at the psychological power struggle between four men in a Japanese prison camp in Java during WWII.

Tom Conti is the title character Lawrence, who can speak Japanese and acts as liaison between prisoner and captor. He feels he understands the enemy, and almost has run of the camp, hanging around and commenting. Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also did the outstanding musical score, is the prison's humane commander Yonoi. Yonoi seems to want to be kind to the prisoners without being a push over, and often butts heads with the cruel guard Hara, played by the now famous director/actor Takeshi "Beat" Kitano. Unlike many of his own films, here Kitano shows emotion! The quartet is completed by Celliers, a mysterious stranger played by David Bowie, one of the few times where a singer can do more than act in music videos.

The four main players spend most of the film trying to vie for power, or so it seems. The Japanese look down on the British prisoners, the British prisoners look down on the Japanese. An early subplot involves the homosexual rape of a Dutch prisoner by a Korean guard. The guard is slated for execution, and after a false start, is killed. Celliers is found guilty of war crimes, and put in front of a firing squad, who all fire blanks. This cycle of psychological torture by making a man think he is going to die, then serving as a savior, is repeated once more. Celliers and Lawrence are almost killed, but saved by Hara, who fancies himself Father Christmas (it is around the holidays).

Yonoi calls Celliers a demon, and another guard tries to kill Celliers. Celliers has a hold on Yonoi that goes beyond most captor/prisoner relationships and borders on love. Celliers could be a demon, he could be Christ, his identity is always being questioned. In one extended sequence, we see Celliers before the war, when he betrayed his deformed younger brother and has never forgiven himself for it. Perhaps the film deals with redemption, whether it be at the hands of people we love, or people we come to think of as enemies.

This was my main problem with the film. The film was so taken with the internal conflicts of these four men, I wanted to understand it, not just observe it. While you finish "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" with more questions than answers, a few answers may have helped.

There is a lack of closure, a lack of clarity, and in the end, a lack of emotion as to how you feel about these enigmatic men. The war threw them into each other's lives, but the viewer gets the idea they know each other better than we know them. I felt like I was not in on a secret everyone else knew. This is from the same director as "In the Realm of the Senses," another film that left me emotionally cold.

The four leads are outstanding, the music gorgeous, the direction good, but the characters were just as puzzling after the film as they were during the film. (* * *) out of five stars. Get this movie now!: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (The Criterion Collection)