Set in a P.O.W. camp in Java, 1942, this film examines the way emotions and relationships evolve when the fragile stability of the camp's social structure is disrupted by the arrival of a new P.O.W., commando Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie). The camp is isolated, there are no visitors, in particular no female visitors, for anybody. This adds sexual tensions to the strains on the relationships between the men.
The idealistic, young camp commandant, Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), mistakes Celliers' initial, almost self-destructive, indifference to his own fate as a sign of Samurai-like morals. He justifies his interest in Celliers in terms of the need to find an "honourable" replacement for the current "unsuitable" P.O.W. commander thus rationalising his physical and mental attraction to the man.
Struggling to protect "his" men in a situation beyond his ability to comprehend, the P.O.W. commander, Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson), feels threatened by the arrival of the charismatic Celliers. Not only is Captain Yonoi displaying an atypical interest in the Major, his previous service with the (to Hicksley's mind) ideologically suspect Lawrence is a black mark.
The guard sergeant Gengo Hara (Takeshi) is struggling to understand the friendship he feels for the liaison officer Lawrence, a man who by Japanese standards should have killed himself rather than be captured. On Celliers arrival he is torn between resentment at the fascination Celliers holds for Yonoi and Lawrence and respect for a man they both so obviously admire.
Not quite sane after a month of isolation, starvation and torture, Jack Celliers is in no state to adapt to his new situation in a Japanese P.O.W. camp. Suspicious of Yonoi's interest in him, the conflict between his rebellious reaction to prisoner status and his driving compulsion to protect those dependent upon him is a recipe for crisis.
Caught in the middle is the Japanese-speaking P.O.W. liaison officer, John Lawrence (Tom Conti) desperately trying to alleviate the problems caused by the cultural and language barriers. Mistrusted by his fellow P.O.W.s and misunderstood by the Japanese, the lonely Lawrence sees in Celliers a figure from his past to whom he turns for friendship and compassion with near disastrous consequences.
Director Nagisa Oshima has drawn interesting performances from his cast. The suitably cadaverous David Bowie ably captures the wildness and desperation of a driven man and Tom Conti is excellent portraying the misery of a mild, friendly man caught between a rock and a hard place. Takeshi, despite most of his dialogue being in Japanese, is able to make us feel the confusion of a man who finds himself a long way from the simple certainties of his childhood.
Yonoi and Hicksley are both somewhat stereotyped characters but Thompson manages to give the Group Captain an uncertain, insecure edge, that of a man who worries that his subordinates are more competent than he, while Sakamoto exudes an aura of loneliness, of a man born out of his time.
Despite the IMDB entry, the film is primarily an Anglo-Japanese production, based on a story by Laurens Van der Post. An interesting feature is the use of both languages for the dialogue. With subtitles only where required, Oshima is able to take us into the world of the P.O.W., hearing our fate determined without understanding what is being said. The Japanese release would, I suppose, show the opposite point of view, with the guards standing wondering what the P.O.W.s are talking about.
This intense film is well worth watching - several times. For the Bowie fans there is the interest of seeing him in a straight role, one which even requires him to sing wildly off key. One wonders why he was not offered more such parts.
Reviewed by Sue Law
Following pictures contributed by Trin.
|Bowie and the Director|
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|Movie promo posters contributed by Tony Green|
|Video Store Posters
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|Original Movie Posters
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|Movie Programme Cover|
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