September 15, 2011

Queer Review: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
Director: Nagisa Ôshima
Writers: Nagisa Ôshima and Paul Mayersberg. Based upon the novel The Seed and The Sower by Laurens Van der Post
Cast: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryûichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thompson, James Malcolm, Chris Broun

A story of World War II, set in a Japanese P.O.W. camp, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence examines issues of honour, courage, desire, and sacrifice.

Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti) is a P.O.W. at a Japanese camp under the command of Captain Yonoi (Ryûichi Sakamoto). When a new prisoner, Major Jack 'Strafer' Celliers (David Bowie) arrives, Yonoi soon finds himself becoming increasingly attracted to Celliers, naturally leading to chaos and strife. Complications come from the Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson), who finds Lawrence's sympathies for the Japanese intolerable and is angry at Yonoi's plans to have Celliers appointed as the new Group Captain.

The Queering
First, I must point out the obvious parallels that are drawn between Bowie's Celliers and Jesus Christ. For example, Jack Celliers has the initials JC, which is a screenwriters convention to indicate a messiah complex. During a key scene Celliers distributes food to the prisoners during a time when Captain Yonoi had ordered a fast from a basket, much like Jesus distributed loaves and fishes to a hungry crowd. Early in the movie, Celliers is tried by a Japanese Court for war crimes and sentenced to die. When Celliers is being tied up by the Japanese, he's arms are outstretched in the classic crucifix position. Only it turns out that this execution is being done with blanks. To me this part was obviously supposed to parallel Jesus's death and resurrection on the cross.

This of course, does not even tough upon the fact that Celliers is quiet often the willing sacrifice. During one flashback, Celliers is shown taking a beating, in order to allow his brother to escape from a pack of bullies. Later, he puts his life at risk in order to prevent Captain Yonoi from killing Hicksley. Only at one critical point, did Celliers ever choose not to endure pain for another, which was a decision that clearly haunted him forever afterwards.

This is all contrasted with the Japanese notions of honour and sacrifice. It is made explicit on several occasions that the Japanese view the allied troops that surrendered, as cowardly for doing so, rather than committing seppuku. This is a point that Lawrence tries to make clear to Hicksley, but Hicksley refuses to understand it.

Furthermore, the filmmakers also draw a parallel here between Christ's love for humanity and gay love. I say this because, during one key scene, Celliers uses Captain Yonoi's attraction for him to save another man's life. A long time ago, Plato in the Symposium argued that gay love between those of the same sex, was the highest form of love of all. Taken together, I had to wonder if director Nagisa Ôshima was trying to make some sort of comparison between Jesus's sacrifice and persecution and the sacrifices and persecution of queers throughout history.

Regarding the acting, all of the major performances are strong, but Bowie's requires special mention. His work during an early scene where it appears that he has been condemned to die, is heart wrenching. Take all of this together, the thematic subtexts and the strength of the acting, and you have one great movie.

Highly recommended. This movie makes for a great present for film buffs on any day of the year, Christmas or not.

The Rating


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