Initially published here
I had avoided Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence for years on the assumption that it was a Bridge on the River Kwai-style war film -- all khaki and olive green, stiff upper lips and inscrutable ‘others.' Quality cinema to be sure, just not my cup of tea. Instead, I discover this hothouse melodrama of unspoken lust and unrequited love between the obsessed Captain Yonoi (played by Japanese pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto) and Major Jack Celliers (played by rock icon David Bowie).
The film was directed by Nagisa Oshima, whose remarkable career stretches back to the late ‘50s and includes such legendary work as Cruel Story of Youth, Death by Hanging, and the equally florid In the Realm of the Senses. He brings his intense, passionate sensibilities to the story of a Japanese POW camp where British soldiers are being held towards the end of WWII. The camp is running relatively smoothly thanks to a begrudging understanding between Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti) and Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano, back when he was primarily known as a TV comedian and long before he made a name for himself as a director). But into the relative calm comes Major Selliers and Captain Yonoi, the camp’s director, is smitten. The tension mounts as both the Japanese and British soldiers begin to understand the Captain’s unspoken feelings. Emotions reach a fever pitch when Selliers kisses Yonoi (formally, on both cheeks) in an effort to keep him from killing a British soldier. The camera begins to literally shake as if the Captain’s passions can no longer be restrained.
It’s a simple and literal expression of his longing and an amazing moment to witness. Unfortunately, we know things are now destined to end in disaster for both men.
Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of the film captures those khakis and greens with an intensity missing in prior home video versions. The disc is loaded with extras including new interviews with Conti and Sakamoto (who also composed the film’s pulsing electronic score). The disc’s only short fall is that while it includes English subtitles for Japanese dialogue, there are no optional English subtitles for the entire film. These would have been helpful as Captain Yonoi often speaks to the British soldiers in broken English that is difficult to understand. Still, a small quibble with what amounts to another remarkable Criterion release.