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In 1942 British soldier Jack Celliers comes to a Japanese prison camp. The camp is run by Yonoi, who has a firm belief in discipline, honor and glory. In his view, the allied prisoners are cowards when they chose to surrender instead of committing suicide. One of the prisoners, interpreter John Lawrence, tries to explain the Japanese way of thinking, but is considered a traitor. Written by
A rare cross-cultural experience in the history of cinema and in the war film genre
Here are excerpts from a study I did on MCML when I was a university student. I wish some of the points I develop below will give a better understanding of some elements in the film. It is better to watch the film before reading this, although the first paragraph can be read as an introduction to MCML.
Only few works introduce a balanced vision of the conflict in the Pacific which opposed the Allies to the Japanese forces during WWII. It is not so frequent that a Japanese film director deals with what is still a critical theme in Japan. MCML is based on a novel written by Sir Laurens van Der Post, a South-African anthropologist who served in the British Army during WWII. Director Nagisa Oshima has brought many alterations to the original material. Van Der Post wrote a semi-autobiographical novel where his war-time memories are blended with his experience in Japan and his ethnological background. Oshima put most of his favorite themes into the film; he found in the novel the material to question traditional Japanese values, opposing them to Western ideology, and his film breaks free from its source but also from any definite film genre. "The Seed and the Sower" and MCML are remarkable because they present a diversity of themes reflecting their authors' preoccupations and some of the subjects they have approached in their careers.
MCML deals with people isolated from the rest of the world under artificial circumstances. As Oshima's work is closer to a psychological drama than to the war film genre, he has obviously favored unity of place to focus on a small group of characters. The plot is set in a very particular context (WWII) when Great-Britain with its allies and Japan were directly fighting against each other in Asia. The opposition between the Asians and the Westerners is a clash opposing colonial empires, races and cultures. None of the main characters is in his homeland nor defends it directly. Java (a Dutch colony) is a sort of no man's land where the British struggled to protect their colonies and where the Japanese fought to expand their conquests, hence the confrontation of two colonial empires. The presence of Korean guards is another hint to the Japanese expansion in South-Eastern Asia. Oshima gave a Japanese name to De Jong's rapist (Kanemoto), alluding to the attempt to obliterate Korea's native culture and its distinctive national features. He gives thus details on the Japanese colonizing proceedings (importation of cheap labor forces, denial of local cultures, propaganda...) yet such elements always remain in the background of the main action. A recurrent theme in some of Oshima's works is the fate of Korea during WWII and the methods used by the Japanese Imperial Army to take advantage of Korean soldiers.
Homosexuality is a key-element, much more important than in "The Seed and the Sower". The POW camp is an all-male world where most impulses are subconscious. Humiliation plays an important part in most relationships between the prisoners and their gaolers. Therefore it is not really a surprise to find that the « story within the story » about Celliers's youth is also about humiliation. The film is about the loss of dignity, not simply the loss of honor. Another recurrent theme is latent homophobia. Kanemoto and his victim, De Jong, are two oppressed characters. As a Korean soldier, Kanemoto turns his humiliation against one of the prisoners. De Jong is a kind of scapegoat who has to bear physical and moral humiliations. There is a parallel between him and Celliers's young brother who is the other scapegoat of the film (the flash-back sequence is about the boy's bullying). Kanemoto and De Jong's story bears indeed on Celliers and his relationship with Yonoi. De Jong and Celliers have to disappear so that the previous order can be restored, just as the sacrifice of a scapegoat supposedly brings back peace and order. Kanemoto and Yonoi both head for disaster once they go too far. Yonoi's attitude hints at what can happen when the fascination for Westerners is too strong. Of course the homosexual subtext concerns mainly Celliers and him. To play the two characters, Oshima deliberately chose two rock-stars (Bowie and Sakamoto) who have both androgynous features. Sakamoto named the music theme "Forbidden Colors" after the title of a novel published by Japanese writer Mishima in 1951 ("Forbidden Colors" is precisely about a young homosexual and his relations in post-war Tokyo. The title of the work is also an allusion to the colors that the emperor of Japan and his family had once the privilege to wear and that were forbidden to ordinary people, a reference to the traditional values of Japan and their disappearance after WWII). Yonoi as a character can be regarded as a metaphor for modern Japan attracted to Western lifestyles and values. Celliers is both a foil and a mirror, being his enemy and his double, with a parallel destiny. That is probably why the Japanese officer is doomed at the end of the film, a difference with Van Der Post's novel where Yonoi survives seven years of prison. Yonoi's behavior condemns him another reference to Mishima's works where Eros and Thanatos are often related to each other. Celliers's morals are not very clear either. His arrival is heralded by Hara's sarcastic comment: « One more homosexual ». In the scene when Celliers and Lawrence talk to each other through the wall of their cells, as an introduction to his own narration coming after Lawrence's depiction of his love affair with a mysterious woman (the only heterosexual relationship mentioned in the film), Celliers states that he does not have much experience of that kind, his words being rather vague.
MCML raises also questions on the nature of war, on what makes people friends or enemies, etc. There is plenty to enjoy in this haunting film, well acted, well directed, with an unforgettable score. Very close to a masterpiece.
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