Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

I don't think I'd suggest this movie to anybody looking for something 'fun and uplifting' to watch during the holidays...Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence takes the audience into the (complex) everyday relationships of four men existing in a Japanese military POW camp in late 1942.  There's a war of wills and of sexual attractions going on between a rebellious British prisoner Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) and the commandant, Capt. Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), who admires Celliers' strong will. Yonoi's steeped in ancient Japanese tradition, yet he's drawn to Celliers sexually, which causes him great internal conflicts to deal with.  Meanwhile, Col. John Lawrence (Tom Conti) is engaged in a see-sawing relationship with sergeant Gengo Hara (Takeshi Kitano) who is a held-prisoner of his own country Japan.

The taboo of same-sex gay activity is suggested throughout this film: A Korean soldier is condemned to commit "seppuku" (a Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment...I told you this wasn't your typical holiday flick) after being caught in an "improper" relationship with one of the Dutch prisoners. As the execution is carried out, the Dutch prisoner, who is forced to watch it along with the rest of the prisoners and the Japanese officials, bites his tongue and then dies of suffocation himself.

As Bowie is interned in the camp, Yonoi develops a homoerotic fixation on him, often asking Hara about him, silently visiting him in the hours when Bowie is confined. However, later on, Yonoi becomes enraged and has him buried in the ground up to his neck as a means of punishment.

SPOILER ALERT! The movie's gay undercurrent is brought forward more strongly as the allies approach the camp and all prisoners are prompted to form lines outside the barracks.  Bowie breaks the rank and walks decidedly in Yonoi's direction, only to end up kissing him on the cheek. This is an unbearable offense to Yonoi's honor code; he reaches out for his samurai sword against Celliers (Bowie), only to collapse under the conflicting feelings of vindicating himself from the offense suffered in front of his troops and his own emotions for Celliers.

SPOILER ALERT!  Four years later, Lawrence (Conti) visits Sergeant Hara, who has now been imprisoned by the Allied forces. Hara reveals that he is going to be executed the next day. The two bid each other farewell for the last time. Just before Lawrence leaves, Hara happily wishes Lawrence a Merry Christmas.

Bowie's time spent filming in the Cook Islands also provided the impetus for his hit album of the same year, Let's Dance.  Before leaving, Bowie packed several tapes of some 1950's and 1960's rythym and blues tracks, with the idea being that he needed something he could listen to over and over again between film takes. Oshima's method of working may have also been an influence, as Bowie described it as "a bit like making old rock 'n' roll records, when James Brown and his band would do it just once".   Let's Dance was completed after location shooting was wrapped and Bowie had returned to New York.  It was all finished in only 20 days.

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