Saturday, April 30, 2011

#535: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

(Nagisa Oshima, 1983)

I love a lot of movies from the 80s but as a whole the work produced during that decade suffered greatly from the aesthetic of the era. Films weren't necessarily damaged in quality, but the editing, graphic design, cinematography, and most importantly scores were so consciously rejecting previous norms in ways that didn't end up catching on that the work is now extremely dated. This happens even to movies that aren't actually set in the 80s, like this one, the WWII POW drama Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.

The film is best known for its stunt casting. Oshima put British pop icon David Bowie across the battle line from Japanese superstar Ryƻichi Sakamoto, who also composed the score. Both the casting and the music are the most difficult aspects of the film - but not because either is subpar. Both Bowie and Sakamoto perform their roles admirably, and the music in the film is quite good. But the awareness of these two elements and how out of place they are in the 1940s POW setting constantly works to take you out of the film. In some ways this makes the movie more interesting, because the fascination Sakamoto's character has for Bowie's works on multiple levels, hammered home by the electronic score that has been made obsolete by evolving technologies.

The film's real strength, however, comes from Oshima's firm iconoclastic hand. The movie is a strong reminder of Oshima's talent and unique voice, and the perspective on both war and its participants is a unique, complex, and entertaining one. Elsewhere, Tom Conti in the titular role and Beat Takeshi - soon to become an accomplished director himself - are the real heart of the film, and both are captivating and intriguing. Still, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence consistently seems more interesting than successful. It's by no means a bad movie, but the pacing is uneven and Oshima seems more interested in getting to all of his points than focusing on one or two that would make the film a more cohesive whole. Having said that, I wish all films were this ambitious, because even the less successful ones are a pleasure to see.

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