Friday, 20 July 2012
Movie Review: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
Title: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (also known as “Furyo”)
Director: Nagisa Oshima
Year Released: 1983
Running Time: 123 minutes
Genre: Drama, Historical
The only reason I'd heard of this movie was because of its stunning main theme (original here, plus some other versions). And being the flawlessly logical person I am, I thought to myself that a film with such wonderful music must surely be wonderful itself. When further investigation revealed that it was set in a WWII Japanese prisoner of war camp and featured morality issues, homoerotic tension and David Bowie, I went for it (interpret that how you will).
The movie deals with the morality of war, and the camp is not insignificantly located in (neutral) Java. There is no “right” side to root for. At the centre of the film is the relationship between four men, Col. Lawrence (Tom Conti), Capt. Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also scored the movie), Maj. Celliers (Bowie) and Sgt. Hara (Takeshi Kitano). Yonoi, who runs the camp, imports the defiant Celliers as a replacement for Group Capt. Hicksley (Jack Thompson, with a very Nigel Thornberry kind of accent going on), who is the incumbent spokesmen for the prisoners. Through their relationship – as well as that of Lawrence, who acts as interpreter, and Hara, a camp officer – the film explores East-West values and relations. The use of both English and Japanese dialogue gives both sides “equal” standing whilst also placing further emphasis on the cultural divide.
The film has a strangely seductive atmosphere, enhanced in no small part by the music. There is an amateurish, almost home made quality to the film as well, which both adds and detracts from the experience. On the one hand, everything looks startlingly genuine, particularly the violence; on the other, sometimes you can almost hear the actors thinking “okay, so you said your line, now it's my turn to say my line – and I'll do it with feeling!”.
The acting in general is not the best, though I would attribute the problem of “looks obviously like they know what to say/do next” to the direction. Too many times, I was reminded that I was watching a film. The worst of it comes in the flashback scene, where David Bowie plays a schoolboy and all his schoolmates wait patiently to deliver their lines in strong Kiwi accents. This really pulled me out of the story, making me think dumb things like “Oh, they must have shot this in New Zealand. Unless he's not British? I'm pretty sure he's British...” and “Really? You want me to buy Bowie as a teenager? Bowie, who looks at least fifteen years older than everyone else...? Really?”. It was very distracting, to put it mildly.
I also found the film boring at times, an impression enhanced no doubt by the performances. I know it's meant to be one of those vague, complex, psychological slow-burn kind of films, but really, sometimes things burned too slow. There are enough ~themes and issues~ in this film to fill boatloads of school papers, and I shan't bore you by analysing them here. You really do have to be in the mood to watch this or else there's really no point.
The way ~acts of importance~ were dealt with was also problematic. Significant events tended to be dropped on the viewer with all the subtlety of an anvil (bonus points if the music suddenly blares into life). Yet at the same time, the meaning of these events could be abstruse to the point where people's actions seem bizarre and confusing (again, this is not helped by the acting). For example, one of my biggest problems with the film was the whole premise that Yonoi would actually be that obsessed with Celliers that quickly. I mean, I know it's Bowie and all, but come on, man, you have serious responsibilities and you should at least make an effort to hide your infatuation. Incidentally, those looking for some hot man-on-man action (because of course you are) will be disappointed; the most you'll get is some intense creeping on the part of Yonoi.
Despite its problems, there is something about the film that sucks you in; the morality issues and character relationships are gripping and there's a haunting mood that's oddly irresistible. I couldn't shake that darned lump in my throat after the last scene either. The movie aims to be deep and profound, and it succeeds – to an extent. At the end of the day, its message is surrounded by too many flaws, and I can't help but think of the movie it could have been.
Alex's Rating: 3.5/5