Director Nagisa Oshima and co-writer Paul Mayersburg's narrative is more fractured than in most films of the POW camp genre, in which the story inevitably leads to some kind of escape. They are interested in exploring the psychology of their characters and the geometry of the camp, in which the captors are both wardens and interrogators, and the prisoners both captors and resisters. A rarity among prisoner of war films, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence also addresses the subject of homosexuality, not in overt fashion, but as a fact of POW camp life. Using two androgynous performers, Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (who also wrote the film's score) and British musician David Bowie, to play the adversaries Yonoi and Celliers, Oshima suggests that Celliers' ability to withstand abuse from his captors elicits more than just admiration from the commandant. Tom Conti's John Lawrence is the supposed bridge between the two warring sides, thanks to his ability to speak Japanese, but he is powerless to stop the sadistic Sergeant Hara (Beat Takeshi Kitano, here billed as "Takeshi") from abusing Celliers. If the film isn't the crowd-pleaser that The Great Escape was or a more coherent mediation on the officers' code that Grand Illusion was, it is an honest attempt to examine the cultural differences that mark the POW setting.
by Tom Wiener review