Monday, February 1, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" (1983)

Released the same year as the much higher profile "The Hunger," "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" was David Bowie's own personal favorite performance of his itinerant career as a movie actor. Upon his recent death I thought I'd look up the largely forgotten film.

Bowie is indeed a mesmerizing presence in the film, which is either a Japanese film with some British actors, or a British film made by Japanese filmmakers, depending on how you look at it. His oddity is both the film's greatest strength and weakness, a World War II prisoner of war drama that is much more contemplative and fey than you usually get.

It's another example of Bowie savoring his artistic status as "the other," a stranger in a familiar land who looks at the world sideways and sees things other miss.

The most obvious thing you realize watching the film, of course, is that Bowie's Maj. "Strafer" Jack Celliers is not the main character. It's Lt. Col. John Lawrence, played by Tom Conti.

Celliers is an almost ethereal presence who arrives at the POW camp during the second act and shakes things up, especially the young Japanese commander, Captain Yonoi, who becomes convinced the beautiful blond New Zealander is an "evil spirit."

What he's really experiencing is a latent sexual attraction, though he tries hard to exorcise it nonetheless.

The homoerotic aspect of "Mr. Lawrence" is not exactly in your face. Neither Celliers or Lawrence ever have any overt romantic encounter, either with each other or the Japanese, though Lawrence does form a strange sort of relationship with Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano) that alternates between warmth and brutality. Celliers, for his part, seems to float above normal mortal interactions.

There is a depiction of homosexuality, though, between a Korean guard and a Dutch prisoner (Alistair Browning) that causes much dismay to the Japanese. It's treated as if the guard raped the Dutchman, but it's pretty clearly suggested that it was a mutual encounter that went far beyond just fleeting fleshy exchanges. When the guard is forced to commit seppuku, ritual suicide through disembowelment, the POW bites off his tongue and swallows it, so they both die moments apart in a star-crossed affair.

Still, I think the attraction between Yonoi and Celliers is there, even if it is a bit one-sided. When Celliers wants to extract the maximum amount of embarrassment from the Japanese commander, he does so by embracing him and kissing him once on each cheek, European style. Yonoi is so overcome with shame that he moves to slay Celliers with his sword on the spot, but falls back in a swoon instead, unable to destroy that which he loves.

The physical appearance of Yonoi is highly stylized; he has a rather gender-bending aspect to his look and mannerisms -- while Bowie, known for decades for his fluid sense of masculinity, comes across rather butch (for him, anyway). Yonoi seems to be wearing makeup that accentuates his eyes and mouth. He's as slender as a boy, and speaks English with an extremely pronounced lisp.

(Indeed, one of the film's unfortunate drawbacks is a lack of subtitles for the Japanese actors, even on the Criterion Collection DVD I watched. Their speech is often very hard to comprehend.)

Yonoi is played by musician/actor Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also composed the music for the film, which I greatly enjoyed. I have a fondness for 1980s films with contemporary synthesized scores, usually by American or British pop bands of the day. Sakamoto's music is a compelling mix of Eastern and Western sounds, and comments upon the action without dominating it.

Interestingly, Sakamoto also wrote another version of the main theme that includes lyrics. The title, "Forbidden Colours," I think pretty convincingly puts the final nail in the coffin on the discussion about the homoeroticism of the film. If that's not enough, then the lyrics offer another: "Learning to cope with feelings aroused in me/My hands in the soil, buried inside of myself/My love wears forbidden colours/My life believes in you once again."

Sakamoto released this as a single, sung by David Sylvian. If you'll watch the music video, you can see the pretty obvious attempt to mimic Bowie's sound as well as his look of that era, blond pompadour and sleek suit. One wonders why they didn't simply recruit the star to do the song, too -- though that is a much more modern habit.

(Watching the movie, the feminized man/boy portrayal of the Japanese POW commander reminded me very much of the one in 2014's "Unbroken." It now seems clear to me that director Angelina Jolie must have been influenced by this film. The actor in that film, Miyavi, is also a composer/actor hybrid.)

Conti gets the majority of the screen time, as the sensitive Lawrence, who was the odd one among the POWs until Celliers came along. Fluent in Japanese and a resident there before the war, he is much more capable of negotiating with their captors than the senior officer in charge, Hicksley (Jack Thompson), who seems to spend most of his time worried that Yonoi will usurp his position in favor of Lawrence, or later Celliers.

Director Nagisa Oshima ("In the Realm of the Senses") wrote the screenplay along with Paul Mayersberg, who collaborated with Bowie on "The Man Who Fell to Earth." They were working from the writings of Laurens van der Post, which were influenced by his own experiences as a WWII POW, especially the book "The Seed and the Sower," which includes sections with both Lawrence and Celliers as the main character. In the book the prisoners struggle to understand their Japanese captors and vice versa, but the sexual attraction angle is not there.

(van der Post is an intriguing figure in his own right, an Afrikaner who became a prominent adviser and friend to British politicians and royalty -- a close friend of Prince Charles, he was Prince William's godfather. After his death a whole bunch of nasty stuff came out, including that he fathered a child by a 14-year-old girl who was in his charge.)

The film is very engaging in spurts, and then seems to drift away into moony musings without a whole of narrative coherence. The best/worst example is when Lawrence and Celliers make an aborted escape attempt and are put into neighboring cells, presumably awaiting execution, and share life stories. Lawrence's is merely an anecdote about a brief love affair before the war.

Celliers' recollection turns into an entire flashback sequence about his boyhood, particularly his relationship with his angelic younger brother (James Malcolm). In the first of two sequences, Celliers defends the lad against some bullies who were mad that he mocked their off-key singing in church. He bears their blows without complaint, but grows angered at his brother for fetching the parish priest to save him.

In the second part, Celliers is a BMOC at their boarding school and fails to save his brother from the ritual hazing given to new students. The boy is carried about and made to undress, revealing that he has a mild hunchback. I guess the idea is that Celliers could've spared him this shame but chose not to, for reasons that are entirely unclear. Further compounding the confusion is that another actor of about age 12 plays Celliers in the earlier sequence, while Bowie himself takes over the character in the second -- even though the same performer plays the brother both times.

I think Oshima and Mayersberg did a poor adaptation of van der Post's book, keeping in bits they felt compelled to while layering in a bunch of stuff about forbidden love that doesn't fit with the rest of the material. They either should've been more faithful to the novel, or much less so.

Still, it's an often compelling film, with disquieting themes of alienation, love and humanism co-existing in an uneasy alliance. I can't quite agree with David Bowie that it's his best role in a movie -- that probably belongs to "The Man Who Fell to Earth" -- but it's certainly a worthy turn.

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