Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), directed by Nagisa Ôshima.

At a POW camp in 1942 Java, the British and Dutch prisoners are getting the usual bad treatment. Col. Lawrence (Tom Conti) tries to be a mediator between the Japanese and their prisoners, both sides uncomprehending the other in a brutal clash of cultures. He lived in Japan, speaks the language, understands the Japanese and likes them. They find him useful and he tries to smooth things over between prisoners and their guards.

Upsetting everything: the arrival of Maj. Jack 'Strafer' Celliers (David Bowie) a commando and "soldier's soldier" who gets under commandant Yonoi's (Ryûichi Sakamoto) skin. The Japanese officer has a sort of erotic fixation on the Major, and his men fear the Brit is an evil spirit bewitching their commander.

(Note: with Bowie vs Sakamoto we have dueling pop stars. Sakamoto also wrote the score, which often sounds like Javanese pop gamelen).

Sexual themes recur: for example a Korean guard is forced to commit seppuku after buggering a Dutch prisoner, the latter a "marked man" afterwards.

I saw this back then and remembered almost nothing about it. It is loosely structured and the plot strands don't knit together very well. We have a bit about whether Celliers will take over as commander of prisoners, and a long segment about school days with his little brother, neither of which go anywhere.

Bowie does well, eccentric in the way that commandos really are, without seeming like a glam-rock pop star at all. His character can't sing.

The title is taken from lines by Sgt Hara, alternately vicious and friendly, who was very drunk one Christmas.

Criterion Blu-ray. There are subtitles for the Japanese dialogue, but not for spoken English. That's a problem: the Japanese are hard to understand when speaking English and I couldn't follow the plot in several places.