2 Movies Like August 32nd on Earth (1999)

Staff & contributors

The tragic irony of war — that, if battling soldiers had been born in any other time or place, they may well have been friends with each other — takes center stage in this brilliant drama set in WWII-era Java. It's a theme best encapsulated by Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto in his film debut), the bushido code-following commandant of a Japanese POW camp: “How wonderful it would have been if we could have invited all of you to a gathering under our cherry trees,” he muses to the titular British Lieutenant Lawrence (Tom Conti), one of his prisoners.

Lawrence is the camp’s mediator, and not just because he’s fluent in Japanese; in the culture clash microcosm that is the camp, he is uniquely understanding of his captors’ way of life. That earns him special privileges of sorts from the camp’s often brutal enforcer (Takeshi Kitano), but this pales in comparison to the instant partiality with which the charismatic Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) enjoys, courtesy of a smitten yet deeply repressed and tormented Yonoi. This psychosexual undercurrent bubbles furiously throughout Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, deepening its (already poignant) lamentations about war’s humanity-stripping effect and the self-imposed prisons that are honor and shame.

Genre: Drama, History, War

Actor: Alistair Browning, Arthur Ranford, Colin Francis, Daisuke Iijima, David Bowie, Grant Bridger, Hideo Murota, Hiroshi Mikami, Ian Miller, Jack Thompson, Johnny Ohkura, Kan Mikami, Rokkō Toura, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Ryūnosuke Kaneda, Takashi Naito, Takeshi Kitano, Tamio Ishikura, Tom Conti, Yūji Honma, Yūya Uchida

Director: Nagisa Ōshima

Rating: R

La Cérémonie is the kind of thriller you can watch repeatedly and glean new insight from each time. Right from its first scene, there’s something puzzling about the buttoned-up Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) that narrows your focus and pulls you in. What’s remarkable is that, even after the secret Sophie's keeping that seems to explain her strangeness is revealed, our intrigue never dips. Director Claude Chabrol and his cast construct a gripping twin character study and biting social commentary around that initial hook, as Sophie finds a kindred spirit in the equally uncanny Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), who opens her eyes to the slyly patronizing way Sophie’s employers treat her.

The film’s study of class relations is always subtle, never veering into over-pronounced territory. That much is clear from the fact that, although some of Sophie’s employer’s family are quite likable, you still understand the ways they’re inextricably embroiled in the film’s quiet indictment of the power dynamics that rule this lofty mansion. More nuance comes by way of the strikingly nonchalant ways evil is depicted in La Cérémonie — just another example of the movie turning something expected (violence is foreshadowed early on) into something that remains viscerally shocking, no matter how many times you watch it.

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Christophe Lemoine, David Gabison, Dominique Frot, Isabelle Huppert, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-François Perrier, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Julien Rochefort, Sandrine Bonnaire, Serge Rousseau, Valentin Merlet, Virginie Ledoyen, Yves Verhoeven

Director: Claude Chabrol

Rating: NR