Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Maggie 2010: Nostalgia Lane

#112. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

This film holds such a dear place in my heart that I can't offer up a standard review of it. In fact, this was the film that awakened me to the special role of alternative video stores, and changed forever my perspective of popular canon -- specifically, all the works that the mainstream can and does so easily cast aside.

In my childhood I must have watched The Bridge on the River Kwai dozens of times, and to this day it remains a classic, a top twenty pick and perfect distillation of the "noble war" mentality taken to its inevitable precipice, then destroyed. Despite my age, it was clear this film represented one of the most important lessons learned (and often thereafter forgotten) in the last century.

Then, when I was thirteen, friends and I went to Suspect Video in Toronto to stock up for the first of our soon-to-be annual anime marathons. I'd never been in a video store like this before -- darkly lit, its titles ordered alphabetically in long bins like you'd find in record stores, to be flipped through one by one with no means of expecting what manner of film might come next.

It was in one of these bins that I encountered Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, which due to my love of The Bridge on the River Kwai immediately piqued my interest. One of the things my friends and I found so wonderful about the anime we'd been watching was the wealth of queer representations -- explicit or implicit -- between leads therein, but to come across a film with all the gravitas of The Bridge on the River Kwai, which also boasted such dignified alternative representations, almost defied comprehension.

To watch the film itself was not to overcome that sense of incredulity -- not then, and not even now, on second viewing, after more than a decade has passed. This is because, while dealing in similar measure as The Bridge on the River Kwai with questions of pride and shame among soldiers of different cultures in World War II, Nagisa Oshima's 1983 film goes one further: featuring David Bowie as the enigmatic POW Jack Celliers and Tom Conti as Sgt. John Lawrence, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence also offers a poignant and brutal reminder that other human conflicts do not subside simply because one is at war.

Homophobia, for instance, doesn't fade into the background; nor does the abject cruelty of our past and foolish selves dissipate from the mind's ever-present eye. Rather, we always carry the complications of our lives at peace into the tempest of war, and only with immense inner clarity can we then use these experiences of the former to mitigate our actions, and reactions, in the latter.

So it is in this story of a POW camp run by Colonel Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), where Sgt. Lawrence's past experiences in peace-time Japan make him the perfect cultural liaison between prisoners and guards, but by no means spare him from the whims of camp officers like Sgt. Gengo Hara (Takeshi Kitano). At the outset of this film the question of homophobia comes immediately to bear on day-to-day camp operations, and provides a lens through which to view events that follow when Celliers is brought to the prison under Yonoi's behest. Because of the era of this film's construction, director Oshima is able to play more surely with flashback than could sensibly be conceived in 1957, the year of The Bridge on the River Kwai, yet that sentimentalism doesn't detract from the horror of its surrounding context.

Indeed, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence remains, in the end, an immensely formal piece about a war where attempts at preserving formality existed in stark contrast with the complexity and messiness of human interactions. For this reason, as with The Bridge on the River Kwai, it was easily one of my favourite films growing up, and remains a fond preference even today.

Yet when I watched this film as a wee adolescent, it was not well known. It was not even considerably acclaimed. Years later, when IMDB began to flourish, the film still managed only a paltry rating that further exacerbated its outsider status. People to whom I recommended the film were skeptical; and even if they wanted to see for themselves, how could they? Except in alternative video stores, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence had all but slipped from the prominent lists of worthwhile film. And not everyone, sadly, had loosed themselves from the shackles of big-name video and theatre franchises.

This year, at long last, I watched Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence take its rightful place in the Criterion Collection, and for this boost to its profile I couldn't be more thrilled. But I will never forget that, long before this change in favour occurred, alternative video stores always carried its torch -- just as they carry the torch for so many other forgotten or neglected works of quality cinema, each quietly awaiting some new and bright-eyed viewer to pluck it from its shelf and give it life again.

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