A brief Stateside vogue for writer/director Nagisa Ôshima climaxed with the notorious dick amputation that ended IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES/’76; limped by the ghostly eroticism of EMPIRE OF PASSION/’78 and was snuffed out in this elegantly composed WWII Prisoners-of-War oddity. The story, unexpectedly traditional, is all East-is-East/West-is-West cultural barriers as Japanese ideals & ideas of honor & suicide bump up against Western decency & principled wartime surrender. Oshima tries breaking the pattern by fetishizing the brutality of the Japanese camp guards & officers and by eroticizing a power struggle of model-worthy high cheek bones & square jaw-lines of Commanding Officer Ryuichi Sakamoto & undaunted new prisoner David Bowie. As camp facilitator/translator, Tom Conti tries to tamp things down, but is unable to cut thru sexual/psychological tensions barely perceived let alone acknowledged. The film might have worked somewhat better without Bowie, any presumed box-office appeal losing out as distraction. And while Bowie successfully took up many personalities acting out the role of Pop/Rock/Punk/Glam musician, regular acting gigs proved mostly beyond his range.
DOUBLE-BILL: Bryan Forbes’ KING RAT/’65, a Malaysian set WWII-P.O.W. tale, is stronger than many better-known films of this type. Structurally (if in no other way), George Segal & James Fox hold the Bowie & Conti spots, but the guy to watch to see what a real actor might have done with Bowie’s part is Tom Courtenay playing a by-the-book pain-in-the-arse prisoner. OR: See Bowie come off in the visually stylish if otherwise underwhelming ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS’86.