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Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a 1983 film from Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, and is based on The Seed and the Sower by Sir Laurens van der Post. The film is set in a Japanese POW camp in Java during the second world war, and focuses on the clash of cultures and building tensions between the Japanese overseers and the British prisoners. Oh, and Foe Yay. An awful, awful lot of foe yay. Seriously, you guys. Until you see this film, you can not believe the foe yay. The DVD box claims it "hints at a sexual attraction between Celliers and Yonoi", but this is a lie. The film hints in the way a pneumatic drill hints at noise, meaning that you needn't worry. It's no spoiler.
Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) is the straight-laced camp commandant, devoted to discipline, order and his beloved country. When he is called to attend the military trial of Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie), he is fascinated by the prisoner's display of honour and dignity and gets all hot and bothered. When Yonoi questions Celliers on whether he can prove he was tortured, Celliers gives him a Look, some proof (namely taking off his shirt), and it all goes downhill from there...
The situation is not helped by Hicksley, the prisoner rep, refusing point blank to furnish Yonoi with details of which prisoners are arms experts, stubbornly refusing to involve himself in any sort of attempts at cross-cultural understanding, and generally being an annoying and ignorant eejit. Caught in the middle of all this madness is the unfortunate Colonel Lawrence (Tom Conti) of the title. A mild-mannered man, Lawrence attempts to bridge the cultural gap between captives and capturers, not that it keeps him safe.
Examining power, cultural differences, tolerance, forgiveness and taboos, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is very much a character and psychology driven film, because, let's face it, POW camps aren't known for their exciting itineraries. The film is also of note for being a Japanese film set in a Japanese POW camp, meaning the director shares nationality with those in charge rather than the prisoners.
The film appeared at the 1983 Cannes film festival, but seems to have existed under the radar as far as the modern world is concerned, lacking even a real internet fanbase outside of tumblr whisperings. Which, considering the internet and the aforementioned foe yay, is surprising. Perhaps its Criterion Collection DVD release in September 2010 will get the word out? It didn't.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence provides examples of:
- All-Star Cast: Both David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto were chosen for their status as well-known musicians in their own countries. The film also stars Takeshi Kitano as Sergeant Hara.
- Bilingual Dialogue: Averted - Yonoi and Lawrence are the only people in the camp who are fluent in both languages. The others simply have to guess at what is being said.
- The Captain: Yonoi, obviously.
- Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough: Only slightly, in that Hara is certainly shown to be coarser and more down-to-earth than his superior officer, but is by no means the only one to dole out punishment and mistreatment to the prisoners.
- Chaste Hero: Celliers has had "no romantic interludes of any real importance". It is (heavily) implied, however, that this is for another reason entirely.
- Culture Clash: Another main theme.
- Cultured Warrior: Yonoi: "To be or not to be... that is the question, Major Celliers." See also Samurai.
- David Bowie: Looking much grubbier and even more demented than usual.
- Foe Yay: Buckets and buckets of it. Enough, in fact, that it drives the entire plot.
- Gayngst: Yonoi (and possibly Celliers, although this is more likely to have been at some point in the past). It's okay though. Yonoi is gayngsting enough for two.
- Hair of Gold: Celliers, in a deliberate contrast with the black-haired Japanese.
- Heroic BSOD: Yonoi has one of these when Celliers kisses him.
- ~Hey, It's That Guy!~: Academy Award winning composer Ryuchi Sakamoto plays Captain Yonoi and famous director Takeshi Kitano plays Sgt. Hara.
- Irony as She Is Cast: "I wish I could sing" and "I've had no romantic interludes of any real importance" from the mouth of David Bowie. Well, the film was made before he met Iman...
- The Laws and Customs of War: The Geneva convention is invoked regularly by Hicksley, despite the fact that Yonoi claims it does not apply.
- Leitmotif: Assorted. Pay enough attention and they'll highlight what's going on under the surface - particularly in Yonoi's head, since Ryuichi Sakamoto was instructed to write the score with Yonoi in mind. The main theme is actually better known than the film itself.
- Magnetic Hero: Although being in a POW camp prevents the formation of any sort of merry band, Celliers seems to be one of these. Despite being of a lower rank and not knowing him particularly well at the outset, Celliers is immediately recognised by Lawrence, who is delighted to see him and speaks high praise of him to Yonoi. He is described as a natural leader, and assumes the role when he defies the fast imposed by Yonoi. And his magnetic hero qualities are almost certainly related to what's bothering Yonoi.
- My Greatest Failure: Celliers is haunted by his betrayal of his younger brother, a hunchback. On his brother's initial arrival in their all-boys boarding secondary school, Celliers did nothing to spare his brother the initiation ritual, knowing that his back would be the cause of derision. Despite being asked if he had any reason to want to keep his brother out of the ritual, Celliers states that his brother is perfectly fine. Why? Because he couldn't bear the shame of being associated with something imperfect. As a result of the mockery he endures during the ritual, Celliers' brother's spirit is crushed forever and he never sings again. This is also a case of It's All My Fault. Because it is.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: "I do wish they would stop hitting me..." - Lawrence
- No One Gets Left Behind: When Celliers tries to escape from the camp he seeks out Lawrence, who he finds tortured, delirious and hanging from a tree. He cuts him down and then attempts to make his escape, carrying the helpless Lawrence in his arms.
- Obligatory War Crime Scene: Plenty, actually. Lawrence is frequently the victim, playing a starring role in exciting features such as being beaten brutally and left hangingby his hands from a tree overnight. Another example Yonoi forcing the sick and dying prisoners to assemble, despite the medic's desperate plea that it's a war crime.
- Officer and a Gentleman: Both Lawrence and Yonoi.
- One-Man Army: It is implied that Jack "Strafer" Celliers is one of these.
- Patriotic Fervor: Yonoi has lots and lots of this. Hara and Hicksley have their fair share as well.
- Proud Warrior Race Guy: All of the Japanese.
- Rule 34: Subverted - despite the beating, bondage, whipping, obsessions with discipline and control, hierarchical power structures, canonical Foe Yay, watching people while they sleep, and David Bowie there is next to no fanfiction about this film on the internet.
- Samurai: While Yonoi is not exactly one of these, he would clearly like to be.
- Shout-Out/To Shakespeare: Yonoi at the trial opens with "To be or not to be", presumably in an effort to make himself look cultured, as it has very little bearing on what he says next.
- Staged Shooting: See picture above. In a fake execution, Celliers is told he has been found guilty of war crimes and is chained up in front of a firing squad. They shoot but - Surprise! Just kidding!
- Stalking Is Love: Yonoi asks Lawrence so many questions about Celliers that Lawrence comments on it (Yonoi avoids the question), and when Celliers is in solitary confinement it is revealed that Yonoi goes 'on patrol' there *cough*watcheshimsleep*cough* every night.
- The Stoic: Yonoi and Hicksley. Particularly Yonoi, who is a machine of self-discipline.
- Survivor Guilt: Yonoi was once part of an extreme military faction who staged an uprising against the government. The officers in charge of the uprising were all executed - apart from Yonoi.
- Tall, Dark and Handsome: Inverted - it is mentioned in the film's special features that one of the reasons Yonoi is attracted to Celliers is his exotic blond hair.
- Title Drop: By Hara at the end of the film.
- What Could Have Been: How did New Wave legends David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto work on the same film yet never work on music together?
- World War Two
- Worthy Opponent: Yonoi initially takes an interest in Celliers because he is impressed by his bravery in the face of death. That, and he stripped half naked in the courtroom.