MERRY CHRISTMAS[,] MR. LAWRENCE (Nagisa Oshima, 1983)

Nagisa Oshima, surpassed in Japanese cinema only by Yasujiro Ozu, tends to make movies that are exceptionally harsh and violent; even so, one is not prepared for the cruelty on display in Merry Christmas[,] Mr. Lawrence, Oshima’s adaptation of Afrikaner novelist Laurens Van der Post’s The Seed and the Sower, about cultural and other collisions between Japanese and captured British soldiers in a prison camp during World War II. Entirely fitting, given this, is that Maj. Jack Celliers—he shares initials with Stephen Crane’s Jim Conklin and the Apostles’ Jesus Christ—ends up capitally punished in a way that recalls Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un chien andalou (1928). The film, almost entirely in English, won Oshima three prizes at the Mainichi Film Concours: best film, direction, screenplay.
     It is indeed sufficiently stringent to undo the impression left by Steven Spielberg’s moronic Empire of the Sun (1987), from J.G. Ballard’s 1984 autobiographical novel, that life in such a camp wasn’t a dastardly experience. On the other hand, Oshima succeeds in keeping the film from becoming sadistic, a catalog of horrors, like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), which too easily rationalizes its own sadistic streak by taking strident aim at Nazi torture techniques. On the other other hand, Oshima’s film comes close, for instance, when a soldier suffocates, after biting his tongue, because forced to watch the execution of his gay lover. The former is Dutch, the latter, Korean; but this division is as irrelevant as whether either man is (outside the crucible of war and internment) homosexual. The point is this: whatever they are or aren’t, they are equally human in either case. Oshima would deal with the relationship between homosexuality and military environment with greater clarity and wit in Taboo (1999).
     Apart from the theme of betrayal and the fact that Jack’s (whipped) back also figures prominently, I don’t know what to make of haunted Jack’s memories of having betrayed his humpbacked younger brother in childhood. Did any such brother exist? Are both brothers the same character, interacting imaginatively across different (st)ages of life? If the latter is the case, then the other’s stopping singing provides an index of Jack’s torment from the inside out.
     This uneven film by Oshima is certainly not one of his masterpieces. But it is bold, fascinating, hard to let go.

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