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Java, 1942. A Japanese prisoner of war camp holds a group of soldiers captive. British Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti), one of the few prisoners to speak Japanese, is the go-between for the captive soldiers and with his respectful relationship with Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) has enabled the prisoners to live a fairer imprisonment. However there are still regular beatings of the captive soldiers and even the executions of Yonoi’s own men. Life in the camp is strained and when Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) is brought to the camp, a rebellious British solider, Captain Yonoi develops a homoerotic fixation with the blonde haired prisoner and tensions rise even higher, especially when Celliers refuses to play by the camp's rule.

 Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is one of those movies I know the imagery for very well and a very familiar soundtrack but I’d never seen the actual film. Being totally devoid of any real knowledge of the film beyond knowing Bowie was a solider in it, I was pleasantly surprised to see it was directed by Nagisa Oshima, a director whose two movies In the Realm of the Senses and Empire of Passion I’d just reviewed and was very taken with his work.  

The film has a lot of great themes. Comradery, rebellion, forbidden love and of course the homosexual undertones that add an interesting spin on the relationship between the Captain of the camp (calling him 'the camp Captain' sounds too loaded considering the story) and his prisoner. Oh and incidentally, for those that might be interested,  Bowie is not the only pop star in this - Sakamoto is as well and actually provided the film's score. Oshima perfectly captures Yonoi’s fixation with Celliers from the moment we realize Yonoi is staring at the prisoner in the early courtroom scene and all of this tension leads up to a pretty simple, yet thoroughly felt kiss in the pair's final face off with one another.

 Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
Beyond that story arc, everything else for me feels a bit loose. of course, Conti is fantastic in his role and his relationship with Takeshi Kitano is also very very good - especially in the film’s final scene which is full of fantastic dialogue and Kitano's "Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence" has more emotion in it than anything else in the film. However this feels like quite a slow going affair for a good half of the run time. The hinting at things gets a little too drawn out and the usual prisoner of war camp elements never really feel like they are for anything beyond continually setting the scene.

The curve ball here is always Bowie. He’s just been allowed to play really. At first it’s a little odd but there’s a scene early on where he mimes having a shave and some food in front of his guards and there’s something unexplainably mesmerizing about his performance. This continues throughout the film and all of his segments, whether it be his flashback story or his neck deep burial in a sand pit, this character feels a whole lot more exciting than the film around him. Bowie’s performance really is delightfully off beat and everything compelling about this story revolves around him for most of the run time.

 Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

Video


Initially Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence doesn't feel like it's going to be all that good a picture but as the opening scene, set on an open field unfolds, those HD upgrade qualities begin to make themselves know. For starters, the light source feels very natural, giving the largely green colours on screen a very real look, despite the overcast colouring of the weather. Skin tones can appear a little pinky from time to time and some of the shots initially feel a little flat but this doesn't last long.

Once we just to the exterior court room scene, the clean but not pristine image comes to life. It's packed full of detail and despite its not so colourful appearance, it has some nice definition, especially in close ups. There's a thin layer of grain to the image but nothing distracting or unexpected, there are some stand out scenes in regards to quality (the night scene with Lawrence talking to an officer under the moonlight is one such scene) and there's the odd close up where you can really study the detail (the make up on Yonoi's temples and anyone fascinated with Bowie's eyes can study every detail of them here).

 Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
As an overall, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a disc with mixed visuals. Sometimes it can appear quite drab but the majority of the time you can feel the benefits of the HD upgrade in spades.

Audio


Well from the get go Sakamoto's synth score is very strong and with it's almost heartbeat like bass elements it fills the channels with fantastic effect. The dialogue is always strong (though not always clear due to some of the accents) and the Japanese actors can often fall slightly out of sync as a clearer dialogue reading has obviously been added in post. There's a lot of natural sounding locations, the echoey courtroom and the prisoners' sleeping quarters all sound very realistic and while wider ambience is a little bit frontal, chirping birds and wind through trees have a good enough audio presence.

 Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

Extras


'The Oshima Gang: Making of featurette' (30:50 HD) is the original making of, featuring plenty of interviews from the time and even a look at when the cast went to the Cannes Film Festival. Bowie is on form with his input and there's a real feel that the cast went pretty blindly into this project just on the prospects of working with Oshima. There's also some segments with the book's author Sir Laurens van der Post

The interview with producer Jeremy Thomas (18:36 HD) is very much about the location and the shoot while the interview with Ryuichi Sakamoto (11:29 HD) is mostly about the score, though it does skim over his acting duties as well.

'An Excerpt From Scenes By The Sea: The Life and Cinema of "Beat" Takeshi Kitano' (03:19SD) is brief look at the actor's work and has a bit of input from Nagisa Oshima as well as his co-stars.  

Lastly there's the theatrical trailer (3:12 SD).

 Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

Overall


Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is fairly routine for a prisoner of war story up to a point, however with Bowie's rebellious oddness and the homosexual undertones coming from Captain Yonoi, Mr Lawrence has something different to add to the mix, even if it never hit me quite as strongly as I'd hoped it would and the lack of focus from time to time made my mind wander a little.

The disc looks and sounds pretty great considering the film's age and the extras are a nice collection of archival items that maybe would have been made all the better with a new retrospective documentary but even so this is a solid release for fans of the film.

* Note: The below images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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