Trent Film Society presents: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

For the final two weeks of TFS fall program, we are turning our attention to Japan during WWII with two films significantly distinct from each other in many aspects.

This week we are showing Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), a wartime drama directed by Nagisa Oshima.

Next week is the long-awaited screening of Studio Ghibli’s animation film, The Wind Rises (2013), which is rumoured to be the farewell piece from the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, who announced his retirement earlier this year.

Both addressing individual experience of the devastating war, the two films take very different approaches to reflect on issues of guilt, conscience and freedom.

Based on novels by South African writer Laurens van der Post, who served in the Allied Forces in South East Asia and survived as a war captive, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a fictional story mixed with the writer’s personal experience in Indonesia during Japanese occupation.

The director Oshima once again takes up a disturbing and controversial subject, which he is no stranger to. Back in 2012, TFS screened his other film Boy, which deals with a dysfunctional family in the Japanese society.

On the casting side, the film is a rare collaboration from Japanese and British talents in pop culture.

First of all, the film is one of the most important screen performances from British rock star and actor David Bowie. His presence alone makes the film worth a watch.

Ryuichi Sakamoto, who both acts and composes the soundtrack for the film, later went on to compose film scores for Japanese and foreign directors.

Takeshi Kitano, who is now an iconic Japanese director and actor, makes his debut in this film.

With the theme of prisoner of war during WWII, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence takes us from the female struggle in the patriarchal society in last week’s Lemon Tree, to the oppression within a predominantly male society.

Whether it is in unusual circumstances like prison camp, or in boy school, masculinity, defined in a very narrow and essentialist sense, is a significant source of oppression and pressure. In the film, for instance, homosexuality is seen as scandalous and necessary to repress to maintain order within the military and the prisoner camp.

Sexuality is not the only thing that is suppressed in extreme conditions like war. For Japanese soldiers like Yonoi (played by Ryuichi Sakamoto), individual will and emotion are also wiped out so that he as a soldier can devote his life for the causes of the Japanese Empire. However, everything changes with the arrival of Jack Celliers (played by David Bowie), who is eccentric yet charming, like Bowie himself.

His rebellious attitude towards order and authority plants a seed in Yonoi, unintentionally seducing him to break away from collective madness of war and face his own desire and emotions.

Some scenes in the film can be puzzling and uneasy to watch, as the cultural shock between Japanese and British soldiers erupts.

The clash between two different conceptions of life, death, and nation has tragic consequences as the tension builds up on both sides, with the chaotic development of an intensified war.

Nonetheless, the film concludes with an endnote of reconciliation, revealing a ray of hope drawn as the characters reflect on the war, when humanity is caged by a void commitment to national glory.

Please join us for a FREE screening of Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Wednesday November 19, at 8pm @ ARTSPACE, 378 Aylmer Street (between Hunter and Simcoe).
All are welcome!