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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
Based on Laurens van der Post's "The Seed and the Sower", "Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence" is an involving, almost unbearably moving and incredibly humane film. While Bowie toplines, the real star is Tom Conti as the eponymous British Officer trying to reconcile his respect for Japanese culture and innate humanity with the barbarity of the POW camp. Bowie has often been criticised for his acting, yet aside from a rather laughable flashback sequence where he impersonates a schoolboy, he is convincing as a mysterious and spirited "soldier's soldier" who has a beguiling effect on the young officer commanding the camp, played by Ryuichi Sakamoto, who quotes Shakespeare and issues brutal orders in almost the same breath.
Sakamoto, who is also a pioneer of electronic music with the Yellow Magic Orchestra, also wrote the soundtrack, including the famous "Forbidden Colours" theme (you probably know this even if you don't know where it's from) which conjures up the atmosphere of regret, lost love and repressed heartbreak in which we see the strange, unrequited love of Sakamoto's character for Bowie's. This film is about this impossible unrequited love and about the struggle of human values in wartime. As Lawrence (Conti) says to a Japanese Officer facing execution after the war; he is now the victim of "men who are sure they are right", just as in the camp the Japanese were sure they were right. The last scene between the decent, humane Lawrence and this officer, who was by turns hearty and brutal in the camp, is one of the most heartbreaking ever committed to celluloid.
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