War may indeed be hell, but a movie that takes two excruciatingly cryptic hours to say so isn't a whole lot closer to heaven. Even with David Bowie as its resident angel, or devil. Or whatever.

Bowie's otherworldly screen presence, established in "The Man Who Fell to Earth" and fiercely fortified now in "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence," may save this lush, lurching, semi-kinky epic by Japanese director Nagisa Oshima from total cult status. But not by much.

Bowie is "Strafer Jack" Celliers, a British officer captured in 1942 and dispatched to a spare, steamy prison camp in Java. He's as relentless in his defiance as his Japanese captors are in their rush to fawn over him -- and then to fear, torture and eventually destroy him. His chief nemesis -- and his psuedo-erotic S&M soulmate, I suppose -- is Captain Yonoi, a kind of samurai Grace Jones, as played with equal parts of fervor and rouge by Japanese pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto. (Sakamoto also wrote the filmscore; his English should be half as lilting as his music.)

So Bowie struggles with Yonoi -- and, via flashbacks that would be laughable if they weren't so endless, with the hunchbacked, dulcet-voiced younger brother he once wronged. Meanwhile Tom Conti, as the suffering, sage British lieutenant colonel of the title, who understands his Japanese captors better than anyone else -- including us bewildered young Americans in the audience -- struggles with more fearsome stuff: The Meaning of It All.

"You are the victim of men who think they are right," Conti tells his former cross- cultural foil Sergeant Hara (acted with playful dignity by Takeshi), who is now an Allied prisoner destined for execution in the film's postwar epilogue. "Just as you and Captain Yonoi once thought yourselves absolutely right, so now they think themselves right. And in truth," Conti says, pausing for yet another look of mournful resignation, "no one is right."

"Ahhh," as someone nearby in the audience whispered facetiously at this point, "now I get it."

There are less torturous ways, believe me.

MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE -- At Dupont Circle, K-B Cerberus, Springfield Mall, White Flint.