Sunday, July 12, 2015

Nagisa Oshima | Senjō no Merī Kurisumasu (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence)

in up to his neck
by Douglas Messerli

Nagisa Oshima and Paul Mayersberg (screenplay, based on fictions by Laurens van der Post), Nagisa Oshima (director) Senjō no Merī Kurisumasu (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) / 1983

It seems strange to me that the Oshima movie I saw yesterday for the first time, should have received such startlingly mixed reviews. Although the New York Times critic of the day, Janet Maslin, praised the work, several of my favorite critics and even the popular writer Roger Ebert had strong reservations when they did not out rightly attack it.  Ebert noted its schizophrenic qualities, the overwrought acting style of the Japanese figures as opposed to the realism of the British and Dutch soldiers: “the results look odd, and eventually undermine the film. We wonder, in some small irreverent corner of our minds, whether the soft-spoken British notice that the Japanese rant and rave over everything, including the weather, and whether the Japanese, in turn, find the British catatonic.
      One of the best minds of cinema, critic Dave Kehr, was disturbed by Oshima’s tendencies to create a work that, at times, morphed into Yukio Mishima’s exaggerated and tortured concerns with sexuality and death (something surely, one might have expected from this director of In the Realm of the Senses). Even the gay-friendly reviewer from Time Out seemed to agree with Ebert that the relationships between the Japanese and English were too schematic, while adding that Oshima’s handling of the narrative was “awkward” and David Bowie’s performance was “embarrassingly wooden.” David Thomson, clearly not a fan of late Oshima films, found the movie “came out bizarre, confused, and with little bearing on reality.”     

     Without suggesting that any of these fine critics were reacting against the known and expressed atrocities of the Japanese of this film or were unable to deal with the quite blatantly homosexual themes of Ōshima’s work just a few years after the famed Stonewall event in New York, one certainly cannot help but perceive that—although the Japanese director had long ago dealt with all of these issues and had never attempted, to my way of thinking, to present cinema as representing what we even imaginatively describe as “real” life—the gathering of concerns about cultural and sexual differences and links, the pushes and pulls that are at the center of this film, did not make his work easy for American and British audiences. In many ways, Ōshima wants to have it both ways, censuring both his own countrymen and the British and Dutch soldiers for their values, while digging deep into the sexual and violent aspects of the character’s lives, which in almost all cases, are what we might call “complicated” by obsessions, betrayals, and obfuscations that make up most human, if  we were truly honest with ourselves, lives.
      If we feel uneasy in the theatrical world that the director has whipped up, that is just his point: beyond the vast cultural gaps between the Japanese captors and the British prisoners, lay terrifying similarities that, it appears, only Colonel John Lawrence (a wonderful Tom Conti)—who speaks both Japanese and English, and has lived for a time in Japan—can perceive. Like a kind of Christ-like go-between, Lawrence is called upon by both sides, time and again, to translate, explain, represent and possibly intercede in the impossible situations of a war-time camp in the middle of Java. And, in this context, I would argue, Ōshima’s decision to situate each cultural tradition in different acting styles seems perfect. While the Japanese act out their obvious tensions in highly traditional, Kabuki-like gestures, warring, praying, shouting, the British and the Dutch, in their desperate attempts to just survive this war-time horror, huddle and whisper together a bit like sheep, imagining, perhaps, that their very gentle camaraderie might carry them through. Even the bigoted and loud spoken Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson), who huffs and puffs in pure bluff, has little effect on the various situations he attempts to resolve. This is most definitely not Bridge of the River Kwai, wherein the British smugly outwit and best the Japanese Commander; Captain Yonoi (an excellent Ryuichi Skamoto) and Sargent Gengo Hara (Takeshi Kitano) may be both brutal and haunted by their pasts, but neither of them is stupid or incompetent, which only Lawrence seems to perceive, which, in turn, is why they call upon him again and again to intercede. By comparison, David Lean’s jingoistic, marching soldiers seem to be like something out of Disney fantasy; these sick and dying captives are sexually abused, bodily punished, and almost daily threatened with death.     Indeed, the film begins with just such an incident: a Korean guard has been found sexually assaulting a handsome Dutch prisoner, who claims he is not a homosexual—even if he were, to admit it would mean death. Hara calls out Lawrence to witness the self-immolation and beheading of the offender, actions which Lawrence desperately attempts to prevent, with little success. All he can hope for is that the victim is separated from the others so not to make him a victim of the other prisoners, now that he has been recognized as someone who has been “buggered.” The entire camp, we realize, not just the captors, but the victims themselves, are absolutely desperate for sexual release. Accordingly, the director establishes from the very beginning that, beyond the vast differences of cultural perceptions, these men are all, metaphorically speaking, in the same boat, suffering from similar conditions of absurd isolation and abandonment. 
      Only a few scenes later, Yonoi encounters, in a trial in nearby Batavia, a godlike blonde of a hunk, Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie, in what I believe is an absolute genius of casting), who in his dismissive demeanor, and in his quite obviously masculine-feminine blending of behavior, captivates the young Captain, who like Celliers, survived a horrible war experience in Manchuria after he was left for dead. Celliers’ obvious disdain for death, which seemingly matches the disdain for dying expressed by all of the Japanese leaders, leads Yonoi to think of him as a match, a foreign soldier somehow in the mold of his own Samurai ancestry. He is wrong, and later admits to being “disappointed” with the beautiful soldier. Celliers’ disdain does not arise from courage but rather from his cynicism, his self-destructive urges embedded, as he tells Lawrence, in his betrayal of his own, lovingly innocent and constantly-singing brother, whom at school he refuses to protect from a brutal hazing. Even the implications of that childhood event, that Celliers’ brother, in his soprano-voiced recitals of invented songs of joy and love, is immediately recognized by his fellow students as a “sissy-boy,” demonstrates Celliers’ own uncertainty of his own sexuality. In betraying his innocent brother, who never sings again, Celliers has also betrayed himself and cut himself away for love and normal life.      Misled as he is, however, Yonoi seeks to restore the broken-boned soldier to life, determined to replace the loud-mouthed Hicksley with the slightly mocking Celliers. Yet, given his dissociation with his own being, Celliers merely taunts his would-be-savior, whom we are told, visits the prisoner each night. Ultimately and predictably, Celliers crosses the line, just as Hara, during a drunken Christmas evening, grants both Celliers and Lawrence their freedom from isolated punishment. In revenge for their freedom and proclaimed innocence, Yonoi demands a full parade of all prisoners, including the desperately ill. Gunners with both rifles and machine guns surround them; it is clear that the only way Yanoi can regain his honor is to shoot down those most suffering and ill. Celliers, truly becoming the hero he has never previously been, moves forward, with an unimaginable grace, through the tortured and suffering soldiers at ordered attention, to meet Yanoi directly, kissing him upon both cheeks.    
     To me, this is one of the most powerful moments in all of films, where a character not only responds to the psychological intimidation daily played out against him, but accepts the consequences for what might even be described as returning the obsessed man’s love. Celliers has finally stood up for what his innocent brother was punished for. As we have seen in the very first frames of this film, however, this is not a world that can accept more than one reality—much like the critics, I might suggest, whom I described at the beginning of this essay. Yonoi is dishonored, and before the war’s end, dies. An even more ruthless leader condemns Celliers to death by burying his body up to his neck in lime, leaving the man to suffer in the sun until death. In a private moment, Yonoi stealthfully clips a lock of would-be lover’s blonde mane, later commanding Hara to take the token to a Japanese village to dedicate it at a shrine. So does this troubled British soldier become a more important saint than the merry Santa Claus Hara has pretended to be.     The last encounter between Hara, about to be executed, and the still philosophical Lawrence, attempts to restate Ōshima’s major statement, that both sides, in believing they were absolutely right, were wrong.
      That is hard, I am certain, for men who fought against the Japanese (and, for that matter, those on the German front) to accept. That they might, many of them, have also felt strong feelings throughout their close internment, for their own sex is just as difficult, or even more impossible, to admit. They had no choices, I am sure, they would argue. But that is precisely, I believe, Oshima’s point in this brave motion picture, in which love often is transformed into violence, insanity briefly reformed by reaches between the gaps of misunderstanding and hate.

Los Angeles, June 21, 2008
Reprinted from Nth Position (July 2013).

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