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Women Without Men (a J!-ENT DVD Review)

November 19, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari’s “Women Without Men” is an eye-opening film to Iran (1953) but also a film that tries to show viewers how Iran used to have a democracy at one point in time and how much freedom women also had long ago.  Thanks to the artistic influence of photographer and visual artist turned director, Shirin Neshat and co-director Shoja Azari, they were able to bring in a good balance of politics and art which work harmoniously together and in essence, a film that is moving and also visually captivating. “Women Without Men” is recommended!

Images courtesy of © 2011 INDIEPIX. All rights reserved.

DVD TITLE: Women Without Men

DATE OF FILM RELEASE: 2009

DURATION: 95 Minutes

DVD INFORMATION: Color, 2:35:1, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, Farsi with English Subtitles

COMPANY: INDIEPIX

RATED: NOT RATED

RELEASE DATE: September 25, 2012

Directed by Shirin Neshat, Shoja Azari

Written by Shoja Azari

Screenplay by Shirin Neshat

Based on the Novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour

Produced by Philippe Bober, Martin Gschlacht, Susanne Marian

Exective Producer: Jerome de Noirmont, Barbara Gladstone

Associate Producer: Shoja Azari, Oleg Kokhan

Line Producer: Peter Hermann, Erwin M. Schmidt

Music by Ryuichi Sakamoto

Cinematography by Martin Gschlacht

Edited by George Cragg, Patrick Lambertz, Jay Rabinowitz, Christof Schertenleib, Julia Wiedwald

Casting by Lisa Olah, Markus Schleinzer

Production Design by Shahram Karimi, Katharina Woppermann

Costume Design by Thomas Olah

Starring:

Shabnam Toloui as Munis

Pegah Ferydoni as Faezeh

Arita Shahrzad as Farrokhlagha

Orsola Toth as Zarin

Mehdi Moinzadeh as Sarhang

Essa Zahir as Amir Khan

WOMEN WITHOUT MEN is Shirin Neshat’s independent film adaptation of Shahrnush Parsipur’s magic realist novel. The story chronicles the intertwining lives of four Iranian women during the summer of 1953; a cataclysmic moment in Iranian history when an American led, British backed coup d’état brought down the democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and reinstalled the Shah to power.

For many Americans, especially today, we often don’t understand why certain countries have strained relations.  Some look at cultural differences, religious differences but when it comes to the United States and Iran, many will look towards history and see 1953 as a year that the relationship between Iran and the United States to change and 50-years-later, tension between the countries continue.

For those who grew up during that time, after the United States and Britain assisted Mohammad-Reza Shah in the overthrow of Prime Minister of Iran Mohammad Mosaddegh and to allow the country to be under a military government led by General Fazlollah Zahedi.

For many, it was the end of democracy.  Many will engage in debates about foreign involvement with the 1953 Iranian coup d’etat but many would feel that the interest for foreign powers was over oil, which at the time, the United States depended on 60% of oil coming from Iran.

The Prime Minister who felt that the oil was Iranian property wanted to protect the country’s oil and Britain retaliated by preventing oil to be exported from Iran to other countries which led to CIA carrying out a coup as an “act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest level of government”.

Because of this, there was an exodus of Iranians and those who were not in the country were exiled.

For famous photographer and filmmaker Shirin Neshat, she was studying at a university in California during the revolution and was unable to return to visit her family.  But as an Iranian and also now an American, she has a perspective from both countries along with co-writer/co-director Shoja Azari (“Logic of the Birds”, “Windows”).

Both worked on a loose adaptation of Shahrnush Parsipur’s 1990 novel “Women Without Men”, a novel that was banned by the Iranian government and because of her literary work, she was imprisoned four different times (which she would write about in 1994 in her memoir, “Prison Memoire”).

For the film adaptation, the goal for both filmmakers was not to polemicize the coup but to show how Iran looked when it was under a democracy.  How people lived differently than people of today pre-193, some who pursued the arts and culture, music and decor but a lot has changed since then.  Also, because Shirin Neshat is an artist, to bring some of her influence to the film, especially with the various shots that are featured in the film.

The film would follow the lives of four women and feature their lives during the Iranian Revolution of 1953.  Because the film could not be shot in Iran, it was shot in Turkey and actors were cast in Europe.  The film was banned from Iran but was a winner of a Silver Lion at the 2009 “Venice Film Festival” for “Best Director” and also the winner of the “UNICEF Award”, also receiving a nomination for a “Golden Lion” award.

“Women Without Men” was screened at film festivals all around the world and now, the film will be released on DVD courtesy of IndiePix.

“Women Without Men” would begin with a young woman in her late twenties named Munis (portrayed by Shabnam Toloui), a woman that is being arranged by her brother Amir to meet with a suitor.  But she has no interest in marriage.  She is more interested in listening to the news on the radio in regards to current events and what Britain and America are doing to their country.

But it leads to tension because Amir feels his sister is not interested in getting married and wanting to become single (which is an an embarrassment for him as her older brother).  And in anger, he rips apart the television cord, and threatens her that he will beat her if she doesn’t meet with the man.

Meanwhile her good friend Faezeh (portrayed by Pegah Ferydoni) wonders why Munis is so interested in what is happening with the politics, especially those who are involved in outdoor strikes against the Shah.

Faezeh is also there to visit Munis because she is in love with Amir, who happens to be engaged to marry another woman.

Upset by Amir forcing her to marry, Munis goes up the top of their building and jumps off to kill herself.  She is found by both Faezeh and her brother Amir and is buried.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Zarin (portrayed by Orsolya Toth), a person who does not speak and is a prostitute who looks emotionless and severely depressed of her current lifestyle. She is different from the others and is often alone.  One day, she heads off to a nearby orchard and goes to a lake where she tries to drown herself.

We are then introduced to Farrokhlagha (portrayed by Aria Shahrzad), a singer and a disenchanted wife of a general who is sickened by her marriage to the man, who took another wife because his wife no longer pleasures him.  She makes the decision of leaving her husband and her old lifestyle to live in the quite orchard, where she and the orchard worker discover Zarin unconscious in the lake.

As both try to bring Zarin back to life, back at the home of Faezeh, she is preparing to attend Amir’s wedding.

While there and walking outside, she hears Munis calling out her name from the ground.  Faezeh digs her out and frees Munis from her burial, but instead of going home, Munis rather hang out at the coffee shop to listen to the news on the radio about what is happening in their country.  Faezeh not wanting to be near the people who go onstrike, leaves by herself, not knowing that two men have left the coffee shop to pursue her.

When Munis goes outside to look for her friend, she sees Faezeh crying and finds out that she was raped. Feeling shamed and not wanting to return back home, Munis taks Faezeh to the orchard and tells her to stay there, as the people there will help her.  But for now, she must go to Tehran.

As Faezeh goes into the orchard, she meets Farrokhlagha and Zarin and eventually befriends them and heals overtime.

Meanwhile, Munis ends up becoming an activist and sides with the communist who are protesting against the Shah.

But as even are nearing mid-August of the successful coup d’etat against Prime Minister of Iran Mohammad Mosaddegh, how will life affect these four women?

VIDEO & AUDIO:

“Women Without Men” is presented in 2:35:1 aspect ratio and in Farsi Dolby Digital 2.0 with English subtitles.  Thanks to Shirin Neshat, famed photographer and visual artist turned director who brings her style and creativity as director by working with cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (“Revanche”, “Lourdes”, “Breathing”) and getting the shot that she wanted in the film.

The cinematography is beautiful, the composition of the film is creative and artistic and I was captivated by the overall look of the film.  While the film looks good on DVD, if IndiePix ever releases titles on Blu-ray, I do hope they consider releasing “Women Without Men” on Blu-ray in the future.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“Women Without Men” comes with the following special features:

  • Behind the Scenes – (21:44) The behind-the-scenes making of “Women Without Men” narrated by Shirin Neshat.
  • Walker Art Center Q&A – (48:08) Post-screening Q&A with Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari.
  • Theatrical Trailer – (1:51) Theatrical trailer for “Women Without Men”.
  • Shirin Neshat Video Compilation – (3:28) A video compilation of Shirn Neshat’s work.
  • Slideshows: Production of Women Without Men – Photos from “Women Without Men”
  • Slideshows: The Art of Shirin Neshat – Slideshow of Shirin Neshat’s photography work.
  • Trailers for Other IndiePix Titles

EXTRAS:

“Women Without Men” comes with a 12-page booklet which features an interview with Shirin Neshat and a political and historical background of what happened in Iran back in 1953.  The film also comes with a slipcover.

 

“Women Without Men” is an eye-opener and a film that works on a variety of levels.

For one, any American not familiar with the US and Iran conflict will probably be surprised about what happened in Iran in 1953.   How Iran pre-1953 was a country that believed in democracy, people could live freely and women had a choice to dress what they want, leave their husbands if they want.  People embraced culture, art, music, etc.

But because of the coup d’etat led by Britain and the United States for the sake of oil production, the United States partook in a propaganda campaign to have Prime Minister of Iran Mohammad Mosaddegh removed and bringing in the Shah and new leader General Fazlollah Zahedi, to rule Iran with an iron fist and for the most part, it was the end of democracy for many Iranians.

While the film doesn’t delve too much into the politics or conflict, it does try to showcase an Iran pre-1953 and how people were free.  Not knowing that their country would soon change with a military government and it would be the end of democracy for the country.

The four characters are from different parts of the society, showing women as independent.

Munis is a woman who is not as traditional as her religious brother who wants and is forcing her to get married, while she wants to remain independent and become an activist.

Faezeh was very traditional but when she is raped, knowing that her life will never be the same, she gets a taste of freedom away from her traditional life with singer Farrokhlagha.

Farrokhlagha is a talented singer and wife to a general, who is disenchanted with her marriage, her husband having another wife for sexual needs and disgusted by her husband, chooses to leave her life and her husband to live at an orchard.

While Zarin is a woman who is a prostitute and disenchanted with her own life because of the life she is living.

And I would imagine the title of the film would related to each of these women who are without men and have been used, abused or mistreated by men in someway.

But it’s how their lives change in 1953, as we see these women with and without their chador.  A time where women had more freedom and the lifestyle enjoyed by people that we don’t see today.  And that was one of the primary focuses by the filmmakers and that is to show how Iran once was for society but also women.

The other example of how this film works on another level is thanks to Shirin Neshat, famed photographer and visual artist who brings her style and creativity as director, working alongside cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (“Revanche”, “Lourdes”, “Breathing”) and getting the shot that she had wanted in the film.  The cinematography is beautiful, the composition of the film is artistic and I was captivated by the overall look of the film.

The film also featured legendary Japanese musician/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto composing a few tracks on the film, but instead of an ongoing musical score throughout the film, Shirin Neshat wanted more use of natural sounds.

All this was done with a shoestring budget and for the most part, Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari were able to craft a wonderful film that balances politics and art without being too pretentious nor does the film preach about which side is right or who is wrong.

There is no doubt that Shirin Neshat and working with writer Shahrnoush Parsipour, that with both living in the United States, there are freedoms that they have in America, but being Iranian, there is a side (especially for Shirin) that is somewhat bittersweet because it is a film about Iran, but yet the film is banned from being shown in Iran, because the film features a freedom of Iran’s past, how women were treated in Iran 1953 and how certain liberties and freedom died when democracy was replaced.

And for any cineaste who loves to do their research of history, you learn that America was a big part of that change and one of the reasons why tensions between the two countries exist today.

As for the DVD, “Women Without Men” is one of the better IndiePix DVD releases I have reviewed.  There are a few special features including a Q&A and making of, a booklet is included with a special case.

Overall, Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari’s “Women Without Men” is an eye-opening film to Iran (1953) but also a film that tries to show viewers how Iran used to have a democracy at one point in time and how much freedom women also had long ago.  Thanks to the artistic influence of photographer and visual artist turned director, Shirin Neshat and co-director Shoja Azari, they were able to bring in a good balance of politics and art which work harmoniously together and in essence, a film that is moving and also visually captivating.

“Women Without Men” is recommended!

 

 

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #535 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

September 16, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The more I watch this film, I come away watching it and discovering something new.  “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is a much different film compared to Oshima’s more rebellious films that he is known for.  But if you give it a chance, you can find its story quite deep.  And to make this latest release of the film worth the while for the cineaste, The Criterion Collection has done cinema fans a big favor by including special features that really enhances your appreciation of the film.  Definitely recommended!

Image courtesy of © HanWay Films Limited. 2010 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #535

YEAR OF FILM: 1983

DURATION: 123 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (1:78:1 Aspect Ratio), Color, In English and Japanese with English Subtitles

COMPANY: Janus Films/Les Films Du Jeudi/THE CRITERION COLLECTION

RELEASE DATE: September 24, 2010

Based on the Book “The Seed and The Sower” by Laurens Van der Post

Directed by Nagisa Oshima

Screenplay by Nagisa Oshima, Paul Mayersberg

Executive Producer: Terry Glinwood, Masato Hara, Geoffrey Nethercott, Eiko Oshima

Associate Producer: Joyce Herlihy, Larry Parr

Producer: Jeremy Thomas

Music by Ryuichi Sakamoto

Cinematography by Toichiro Narushima

Edited by Tomoyo Oshima

Production Design by Jusho Toda

Art Direction by Andrew Sanders

Starring:

David Bowie as Maj. Jack “Strafer” Celliers

Tom Conti as Col. John Lawrence

Ryuichi Sakamoto as Capt. Yonoi

Takeshi Kitano as Sgt. Gengo Hara

Jack Thompson as Group Capt. Hicksley

Johnny Okura as KAnemoto

Alistair Browning as De Jong

James Malcolm as Celliers’ Brother

Chris Broun as Celliers aged 12

Yuya Uchida as Commandant of Military Prison

Ryunosuke Kaneda as President of the Court

Takashi Naito as Lt. Iwata

In this captivating, skewed World War II drama from Nagisa Oshima, David Bowie regally embodies Celliers, a British officer interned by the Japanese as a POW. Rock star Ryuichi Sakamoto (who also composed this film’s hypnotic score) plays the camp commander, obsessed with the mysterious blond major, while Tom Conti is the British lieutenant colonel Lawrence, who tries to bridge the emotional and language divides between captor and prisoner. Also featuring actor-director Takeshi Kitano in his first dramatic role, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a multilayered, brutal, at times erotic tale of culture clash, and one of Oshima’s greatest successes.

He is known as one of Japan’s most controversial but also highly respected director, his name is Nagisa Oshima, a filmmaker who shocked Japan with his films in the ’60s and achieved notoriety with his unsimulated sex film “In the Realm of Senses” and followed up with another controversial film with “Empire of Passion” (1978).

One of the founders of the Japanese New Wave, Oshima was known for taking on Japanese taboos and creating films against the status quo and in 1983, Nagisa Oshima, now residing in France, went to work on his film “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”, a historical war film loosely based on the novel “The Seed and The Sower” by Laurens Van der Post and Laurens’ experience as British soldier who surrendered to the Japanese in 1942 and was a prisoner of war for several years and saw how soldiers were treated by the Japanese but how he was able to stay alive due to his ability to speak Japanese.

But Nagase Oshima has always had a different perspective towards Japanese culture and for Nagashima, this was a chance to explore men’s attitudes in POW camp but to also explore perspectives of men from two different worlds and the consequences of war. Because “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was released in 1957 and dealt with British prisoners of war, both Oshima and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg (“The Man Who Fell to Earth”, “Eureka”, “The Last Samurai”) wanted to make things different with this film and other POW war films.  “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” would eventually be nominated for a Golden Palm at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for six Japanese Academy Awards and also a winner of a BAFTA Award for “Best Score”.  And now “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” has been given the Criterion Collection treatment and will be released on Blu-ray and DVD.

The film revolves around four men at the camp.  Liutenant Colonel John Lawrence (played by Tom Conti, “Deadline”, “The Wright Verdicts”) is a British officer who speaks Japanese and because of that, he is like the spokesperson to the British POW’s and communicates with both Captain Yonoi (played by popular musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, “The Last Emperor”, “Appleseed”, “Wings of Honneamise”) and Sgt. Hara (played by Takeshi Kitano, “Brother”, “Zatoichi”, Sonatine”, “Johnny Mnemonic”).

Captain Yonoi follows the Bushido code and a man who feels guilt because while he was stationed in Manchuria, he was not in Tokyo where his Army comrades were executed after a military coup d’état.  Sgt. Hara is a man who seems to have a sadistic side to him but on Christmas Day, has a side to him where he becomes compassionate.   For Hara, he is very Japanese in the sense that one would not be held as a POW and would commit sepuku (a Japanese ritual suicide, dying with honor) rather than give the enemy a chance to feel they have won.

For Hara, he tries to understand the British soldiers motivation and  Lt. Col. Lawrence explains to him that he wants to survive for a chance to win against enemy.  No one wants to die if they have a chance to live and both men learn about each other’s perspective of life as soldiers.

Meanwhile, a new POW is brought into the camp.  Major Jack “Strafer” Celliers (played by David Bowie, “The Man Who Fell to Earth”, “Labyrinth”), a rebellious prisoner who has caught the attention of Captain Yonoi.  Celliers is also a man burdened by guilt as his younger brother was always beaten up and humiliated by other kids (because the younger brother had a hunchback) and did nothing to stop it.  So, in many ways, Celliers wants to help his fellow people, may it be to secretly feed them (when they are sentenced by Yonoi to fast, after a death of one of their soldiers), even if it means getting himself into major trouble.

The other Japanese soldiers start to notice how Yonoi is captivated by Celliers (almost like a homoerotic fixation on the man) which leads to one of the soldiers planning to kill Celliers in order for their captain not to lose honor and from that moment, Yonoi knows that his dedication to the Bushido code and running the camp with an iron fist is starting to weaken due to his emotional feelings that he has towards Celliers, prompting him to wanting to have one of the soldiers killed… Lt. Col. Lawrence for a crime he did not commit.

VIDEO:

“Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #535” is presented in 1080p High Definition and in color.  The Criterion Collection version is the best looking version of the film to date.  More grain, colors look very good and even vibrant at times.  You can see the stubble on David Bowie’s chin, you can see more detail on the wood surfaces, the grain on the sand and even the beads of sweat going down the soldier’s faces.  Even during the darker portions of the film you can see a good amount of detail.  There are probably some parts of the film in which “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” does look its age but for the most part, this 27-year-old film looks great on Blu-ray.

According to the Criterion Collection, the new HD digital transfer was created from a 35mm interpositive scanned in 2K resolution on a Spirit Datacine 4K machine at Midnight Transfer, London.  2K color correction was done using Assimilate’s Scratch system, and dirt and scratch removal was done using Pixel Farm’s PFClean system at Cinelmage, London.  This corrected data was output to high-definition tape at On Sight, London.  Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system, while Digital Vision’s DVNR system was used for a small dirt, grain, and noise reduction.

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

“Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is presented in Japanese and English stereo with English subtitles.  Dialogue is crisp and clear and music also comes clear through the front channels.  It is important for people to know that the Japanese dialogue is subtitled but when the Japanese talent are speaking English, there are no subtitles which is appropriate.  But for some people who have difficulty understanding certain dialogue from the Japanese talent, there are no English subtitles.

The film is presented in its original stereo surround format, the soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the 35mm Dolby LT/RT magnetic audio track at Sync Sound Audio, London.  Pops, crackle, hiss and hum were reduced with an array of audio restoration techniques.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #535” comes with the following special features:

  • The Oshima Gang – (29:35) A behind-the-scenes featurette produced in 1983 with actors David Bowie and Tom Contie, author Laurens van der Post, director Nagisa OShima and producer Jeremy Thomas.
  • On the Screenplay – (11:05) The Criterion Collection interviews screenwriter Paul Mayersberg in regards to the development and screenplay of “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” and the work of Nagisa Oshima.
  • On Location – (40:00) Interviews with actors Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto and producer Jeremy Thomas reminiscing of their experience on the set of “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”.
  • On the Music – (18:09) The Criterion Collection interviews actor and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto who talks about the score for “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”.
  • Hasten Slowly – (55:32) A 1996 documentary which was produced and directed by Mickey Lemle which explores the spiritual journey of Afrikaner author Sir Laurens van der Post (1906-1996) who  wrote “The Seed and the Sower”.  The autobiographical novel was the basis for “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”.
  • Trailer – (3:13) The original theatrical trailer for “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”.

EXTRAS:

  • 30-Page Booklet– The booklet features “Lawrence of Shinjuku” by Chuck Stephens, an interview with filmmaker Nagisa Oshima titled “Oshima: Sex, Militarism and Empire” by film scholar Tadao Saito right before the film was promoted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1983 and a ten question interview between Switch Magazine and Takeshi Kitano.

“Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is one of those films that stays with you.  You don’t remember it so much as a war film, but a film about the relationship of man and their differences.

During my trips to Japan during the Winter, you can hear the theme song to this film still being played on the loudspeaker and for nearly three decades, there are many times where I would be asked by Japanese friends if I have ever watched the film.   There is always an allure towards this film by Japanese and also to those who have had the opportunity to watch it and for me, each time I have watched this film, I have come away watching it and discovering something new each time.  And with this latest experience, because of the awesome special features that come with this Criterion Collection release, not only does it answer some questions I have had of this film but it also enhanced my appreciation of this Oshima classic.

For those who are used to Oshima’s Brechtian style of filmmaking, “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” was a film that proved to be baffling to those who viewed it.   Afterall, one can’t expect another “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and although based on a book, for those who are familiar with Oshima’s work will know that he’s not going to follow things as exactly what was on the pages of Laurens Van der Post’s “The Seed and The Sower”.  We expect some sort of rebelliousness from Oshima and if anything, for him to take on a POW film is quite interesting.

I definitely admire director Nagisa Oshima for not following the path of other filmmakers when it comes to prisoner of war films.  Not to say that these films are cliche but when you have Oshima working on the film, you’re expecting some type of rebelliousness on his part, and also expecting him not to follow the traditional route of filmmaking and storytelling.

As we have learned from Nagisa Oshima from films such as “In the Realm of Senses”, “Empire of Passion” and even his sixties films, one expects some type of rebellious trait that somehow exposes Japanese culture in a non-traditional way and in “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”, the subject matter is not as simplistic of two different cultures that see their own life in a different manner, nor is it about one side being ominous or correct. It’s about understanding one’s own value of life and in that rare moment, having that ability to see things on the other side.

There are people who tend to focus on the homoerotic attraction of Captain Yonoi towards Cellier but for me, I saw this as part of Oshima’s rebelliousness.   Simply because most filmmakers who have created films on the samurai have always focused on man.  May it be the corruption, the power, the protectiveness or the honor of men but I saw Yonoi’s Bushido-believing character as a man that was no different as samurai in the early ages who partook in nanshoku (male love) as these were depicted even in “Genji Monogatari” (Tale of Genji).  I started to learn more about this three years ago because it was rather interesting that this was a side of “samurai” culture that is known but never shown on film.  But when you think about the situation of the samurai’s of being around men, rarely around women, can this be the case with Captain Yonoi in “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”?  Was this that rebellious side of Oshima by cleverly including that homoerotic tension in the film?  Because even for the soldiers, even honor amongst men, especially warriors, if it happened then, Japanese filmmakers never touched upon that subject.  Samurai films or even wartime films of Japanese were always depicted showing strong men who had honor.  So, this was the latest that I’ve got out of the film, watching it once again.  Another layer peeled, and once again, something new to discover.  Or perhaps, I am over-analyzing.

But this was how I looked at Yonoi’s fascination of Cellier.  Like many samurai’s who were in areas where there weren’t many women at all and only men, I saw Yonoi as a man who saw something within Cellier’s.  Some writers say it was a “kindred spirit” but I looked at it as more as a man who was touched by another’ man’s sincerity, his honor of wanting to help people, his honor of submitting himself to become a prisoner of war but not afraid to die.  Call Yonoi fascinated, maybe he was gay but “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” doesn’t need to get into the details of that.  But it makes you wonder how Captain Yonoi was the only soldier who had makeup around his face.  His eyes with the eyeliner, blush on the cheeks.  Why would Oshima want that with only Yonoi and not the other Japanese soldiers?  To make him stand out?  To make him appear more feminine?

It’s important for me to say that by mentioning all this, for the first-time viewer, by no means is this a gay film.  “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is pretty much a film about the relationship of man and the varying perspectives, especially as we see how the Japanese and British soldiers really have a difficult time understanding each other.  But for Yonoi, he is a man of guilt and somehow he felt that same guilt within Cellier’s.

There is also another theme that people who are familiar with Japanese culture (or cinema) will pick up on and that is the feeling of honor.  Dying with honor, serving your country with honor and I felt that Oshima said it best when describing Yonoi’s position of heading a prison camp.  Oshima said (in the interview included inside the Criterion booklet), “heading a prison camp was a humiliating assignment to a Japanese officer’s way of thinking.”  Yonoi’s guilt of not dying alongside his comrades has affected him and having him watch over P.O.W.’s was not making him feel any better as well.  Yonoi is a man of honor and perhaps that is what he saw inside Cellier’s and by then, he would eventually be consumed by his charm.

This is a film that may seem simplistic on the outside but can we classify different human perspectives as simplistic when it is rather complex?  The British soldiers view the Japanese as inhumane and lack honor for how they treat the soldiers but at the same time, the Japanese are in awe of how men can submit themselves to becoming an enemy’s prisoner of war.  The Japanese way is dying with honor.  Lawrence tells Sgt. Hara that for him and his men, it’s about living and being given another chance to fight again.  Who is right?  Who is wrong?

So, I really appreciate how Oshima crafted this film because I enjoyed it…but do I call it a masterpiece?

Roger Ebert wrote in his review at the Chicago Sun-Times:

It’s awkward, not because of the subject matter, but because of the contrasting acting styles. Here are two men trying to communicate in a touchy area and they behave as if they’re from different planets. The overstatement in the Japanese acting ruins the scene.

When I first watched “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” many years ago, I felt the same way.  We know that there are differences in acting style and especially when you try to bring in both worlds together, sometimes they don’t mesh as well.  And I have to admit that when I see Asian talent having to speak (or sing) a song that is not of their native tongue, the results are rather subjective and for me, it works or it doesn’t.  I felt that Takeshi Kitano did a magnificent job especially with the final scene and him delivering the film’s title in his final words but things were good but not great when it came to Yonoi and Bowie.

I know.for some, what kind of movie would “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” have been if it was in the hands of another filmmaker? Or what was the true experience that the real Lawrence, or in this case Laurens had when he was in the POW camp?  What we do know from Laurens Van der Post’s novel “The Seed and The Sower”, Post was a man who embraced the Japanese language and the people when he stayed in Japan.  He was amazed of how in tune the Japanese were to their own environment and at the time, seeing Japanese who have not been in contact with people not of their own culture.  But during war time, he saw how these Japanese that he adored, became different and he saw the hostilities that transpired at the prison camp to the last moment when the Japanese soldiers just switched, as if someone turned the power off and the Japanese accepted their defeat.  There is more to this story which is further explained in the “Hasten Slowly” documentary but I felt that it was simply fantastic that the Criterion Collection added this feature.

And as for this Blu-ray release of “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”, I felt the special features enhanced my appreciation of the film.  And no, these are not special features that last for five minutes long, these are special features that have a lot of information which explains the mindset of the filmmaker and the talent and it was great to watch this and to see “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” in new light.

I’ve been asked if this film is a masterpiece of Nagisa Oshima and although I do feel the word “masterpiece” is starting to become overused when describe a famous filmmaker’s oeuvre and in Oshima’s case, there are far too many films that I did enjoy but I do feel that this film was much more accessible to the viewer. For me, each time I view this film, I come away with some different as time goes by and I start to see things in a much more different light and I suppose that is why I enjoy this film so much is because it’s simple but yet has a complexity that one can easily interpret this film in a variety of ways.  And you’ll either love it or you don’t.

I felt that “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” was a much more entertaining experience this time around and it is because The Criterion Collection had included special features in which we can hear the writer Paul Mayersberg give his own interpretation about the film and working with Oshima, we also get to hear about Bowie, Conti, Sakamoto and Kitano’s impression of the film and get their interpretation of the film as well.   And to finally hear from Laurens Van der Post and his fellow soldiers describe their experiences at the POW camp was impressive and heartbreaking as well.

Overall, “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is one of those films that people will find something deep and complex within its layers or come away feeling like it’s a film that missed its true potential of not following Van der Post’s book and showing a more dramatic approach of the life of the POW.  So, I have no doubt that this film will be subjective towards the viewer.  But if you enjoyed the film before or are the curious Criterion Collection fan who is ready to blind-buy “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #535”, you won’t be disappointed.  This is a solid release and is definitely recommended!

alan – Natsukashii Mirai ~longing future~ (a J!-ENT World Groove CD Single Review)

September 7, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

“The first CD single for avex trax’s “elements” monthly CD single campaign for the Tibetan J-Pop singer alan.  An elegant, dreamy and positive ballad produced by Sakamoto Ryuichi.  Simply beatiful!”

ARTIST: alan

CD SINGLE: Natsukashii Mirai ~longing future~ / 懐かしい未来 ~longing future~

LABEL: avex trax

CATALOG #:  AVCD-31415/B

DURATION: 25:48

RELEASE DATE: July 2, 2008

OFFICIAL WEBSITE

  1. 懐かしい未来 ~longing future~
  2. Seed of Green
  3. 合唱 [懐かしい未来 ~longing future~]
  4. 懐かしい未来 ~longing future~ (Instrumental)
  5. Seed of Green (Instrumental)

DVD: Region 2, 4:3, Duration: 8 minutes

  1. 懐かしい未来 ~longing future~ (Music Clip)
  2. Seed of Green (Image Clip)

Starting with this CD single, Tibetan J-pop star alan will be releasing 5 consecutive CD singles covering the elements.  This CD single represents “Earth”.

“Natsukashii Mirai ~longing future~” is a positive, elegant and dreamy CD single produced by music legend and mega producer Sakamoto Ryuichi who contributes as a pianist for the track and featuring a children’s choir.  The song is very positive and alan’s vocals are just beautiful for this CD single.  Very well done and showcases alan’s vocals and enjoyed how she incorporates her tibetan vocal-style in the chorus.  Also, we get to hear alan playing the er-hu (a Chinese fiddle/violin).  Simply beautiful!

The coupling track “Seed of Green” is another beautiful track, an upbeat, positive ballad.  Another well done, well-sung track on this CD single.

The second coupling track is an all children’s choir version of “Natsukashii Mirai ~longing future” which was nice to see added to the CD single. The following features the choir singing along with a piano accompaniment.

And the final two tracks feature the instrumentals for the first two tracks.

The DVD features two video clips.  The first is for “Natsukashii Mirai ~longing future” which features alan singing outdoors and performing in a variety of settings.  One that is desert, another in a plant filled outdoor scenery and also a cool scene with alan playing the er-hu.  At the end of the music video is details on the project and some ecological facts.

The next clip for “Seed of Green” is similar to her previous image videos which features the singer on location and singing her song.  This music video clip features alan on location, clips from the making of “Natsukashii Mirai” and more.

The CD insert features a bi-fold with lyrics and production credits and photos of alan on the other side.

Overall, the CD single was well done and well-produced.  I had no doubt that alan was in good hands with the collaboration with Sakamoto Ryuichi.

Both tracks on this CD single are well-done and I found myself entranced with alan’s vocals.  Very beautiful and the music was just equally enjoyable and I’ve wanted to hear more of alan performing the er-hu and to hear her incorporate that into “Natsukashii Mirai” was just beautiful!

I used the word beautiful a lot to describe this CD single because that’s what I felt.  Simply beautiful!

Check out more of our reviews at J!-ENT’s World Groove

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Natsukashii Mirai - longing future / alan
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