selenak: (a dangerous man by selluinlaer)
[personal profile] selenak
I've said it before, I'll say it again: this is one of Spielberg's best, unjustly neglected. Perhaps it would have done better at the box office if he had made it a few years later, after Schindler's List, not before, but I don't think so. Of his three WWII movies, this one is the most unusual and the one that defies expectations the most. Based on J.G. Ballard's autobiographical novel, with a script written by Tom Stoppard, this was Spielberg using his gift of directing a child (thirteen-years-old Christian Bale in his first big screen role, aging from eleven to fifteen in the movie, and the fact I had first seen him there caused me to react to the first Batman Begins photos not with mmm, Bruce, but "oh, it's little Christian all grown up *g*) - and no matter how you stand on his oeuvre, he's really one of the best of the business in getting child performances - in a way that went directly against what you expected from him up to this point. In a way, Jim is the anti-Peter Pan. This is a story about the death of innocence (as Spielberg phrased in an interview), not the preservation or triumph of it. What's more, that most beloved (and overused) of Spielbergian motifs, father-son bonding (or sons finding a father figure) is given its sharpest, most disillusioned twist (and that includes Minority Report and its noir treatment of the mentor). And that Spielbergian weakness/soft spot/however you want to put it, the upbeat (and/or) sentimental ending? Not there.



Empire of the Sun is set in Shanghai and one of the thirteen internment camps the Japanese put European and American citizens in during WWII. The early sections in the international settlement in Shanghai, where Jim and his parents are living their privileged lives, have a creepy unreality; you get the feeling these people live under glass (which Spielberg sometimes uses as a literal motif, as when the Graham family is being driven to a party and Jim watches everything through the car's windows). Jim - still Jamie in this first part, and the change of name later is significant - is that tricky balance to get right, spoiled but not monstrously so (i.e. it's easy to play, say, Dudley Dursley if you want to get "spoiled rotten" across, but far more difficult, and Christian Bale achieves this, to go for a "takes his good life for granted, but isn't malicious" element. Nor is he Little Lord Fountleroy. It doesn't occur to Jamie to give something to the beggar outside the door, for example. There is no effort to make him adorable or particularly endearing; one rather feels for his beleagured Amah (the Chinese nurse).

Reality then intrudes, literary, with the Japanese, on the day of Pearl Harbor, going after the Westerners, and as Jim gets separated from his parents, he's still very much a child, going home first, where in a almost silent scene you get a rejection of every "devoted servant" stereotype there ever was as Jim encounters the Amah and another servant taking something of the furniture and demands to know what they're doing. The Amah, whom we've seen so far following him around from choir practice to bicycle time to forbidden nightly snacks in the kitchen, goes to him, looks him in the face, and slaps him. Then she turns around and leaves without haste (and with the furniture). You could say Jim gets slapped in the face from this point onwards till he arrives in the internment camp, and sometimes after.

When he's nearly starving, he comes across two Americans, and there we get into the next round of defying expectations. For these two aren't exactly lovable rogues or plucky heroes (though they are survivors). The first thing they do is to search Jim for anything valuable (and keep what he still has in his school boy uniform), then they check out his teeth (white, whole, and by the way, something I hadn't noticed in the cinema but did notice upon rewatching is the realistic detail of Jim's teeth getting from white and standard to brown and uneven in the course of the film) and then they try to sell him (no buyers). A while ago, I talked with [livejournal.com profile] redstarrobot about how cynics are popular only under the assumption that they never hurt anyone important and really have a heart of gold and come through for the hero, a la Han Solo. Well, the one Jim desperately tries to make himself valuable for and sort of bonds with, Basie, played by John Malkovich, is the anti-Harrison Ford type. Basie is nice to Jim (indeed dubs him Jim instead of Jamie) when it doesn't cost him anything. He exploits him throughout, and when the opportunity arises for something better, which it does twice, ditches him without a problem. Considering this film was made in 1987, when people probably were expecting something of a Harrison Ford type from Spielberg for this role, or, to quote a cinematic precedent, a William Holden type (as in Bridge over the River Kwai), that must have felt like a slap in the face. A confirmation of the uneasy suspicion that the ruthless survivor might just really be that and will not come through for you. That he's not equipped with a soft inner core or a heart of gold for his few friends but won't hesitate to sacrifice his friends, too. That he is, at heart, not a wealth of unexplored depth but hollow.

Jim becomes something of a survivor himself in the course of the film, of course, and the kid who ran away screaming from a young Chinese thief early on is later on able to save a British doctor's life in the camp by interferring and amusing the Japanese soldier in the process of beating the doctor into a pulp. Something he keeps throughout is his fascination with aeroplanes (and this is where one is reminded Jim is a youthful J.G. Ballard alter ego), and as the camp is next to an airfield, you get, as an ongoing red thread, some moments of wordless and language-less bonding between Jim and one of the Japanese pilots (starting out as an adolescent who, like Jim used to, plays with model airplanes, ending up as a pilot on a last suicide mission which doesn't take off because the plane is too wrecked). The last encounter with said pilot, after the war is already over, also marks what I don't think has a parallel in any other Spielberg movie, the utter rejection of the father figure (and not in favour of a "good" father, either), after the Japanese has been shot by an American soldier in a misunderstanding of his gesture towards Jim. Jim goes after the hapless American soldier, and when Basie, who has come back, restrains him and asks him "haven't you learned anything from me?", Jim replies "Yes, I've learned that people will do anything for a potato". Basie then basically repeats one of the dreams Jim had spun for him earlier in the camp, a life together, and it's amazing what young Christian Bale manages to convey with a look and the expression on his face. (Also, applause to the directorial restraint and the scriptwriter's restraint.) We don't need any additional dialogue to know that this is it, and that it's over between Basie and Jim.

Death is ever present in the film, with dead bodies in the camps who get their shoes and eating cups taken away at once, but of the dead bodies thrown Jime's way, three are given particular attention - one woman in the makeshift camp hospital whom the doctor tells him to give CPR to, Mrs. Victor (Miranda Richardson - among other things, this film is a "spot this British actor!" game) who dies of exhaustion on the march away from the camp, and the Japanese pilot, who when Jim tries to revive him as well for a brief moment turns into his own dead body, or rather, in the body of the school boy Jamie from the beginning of the movie. By that point, Jim's face is haggard and he has the thousand-miles-survivor-of-hell stare. Incidentally, Spielberg, who (as has been recently proven in Munich) really can't do sex scenes manages to get Jim's awakening awareness of the other sex across delicately, by the way he watches Mrs. Victor, with whom he lives for a while, and there is a brief, eerie and sad sensuality when she drinks the water he brings her from his hands. But Thanatos is really more important to the loss-of-innocence subject than Eros here, and it fits that when Mrs. Victor dies, Jim sees, briefly, impossibly, the white flash that he later will believe was the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. I have become death indeed.

At the end, he is reunited with his parents - whose faces he confesses earlier on to the doctor he can't remember anymore - but the reunion is not a sentimental happy ending in anything. When his mother, disbelieving, identifies Jim-with-the-thousand-miles-stare among the children and adolescents, we see him very slowly unfreeze and awkwardly, equally disbelieving, touch her lips with his fingers, look at the lipstick, then touch her hair ever so slightly. He doesn't say a word. But he finally closes his eyes. After having seen too much to ever be a child again, it's the one mercy the film extends. We see Shanghai again, as in the beginning, and the film ends.

A word about the music: as usual, John Williams wrote it, but there is no epic "theme", which fits the film. Instead, he and Spielberg went for something very different, taking their cue from Jim being a choir boy at the beginning (before he declares himself to be an atheist, precocious kid, and I wonder whether that contributed to the film being a flop in the US?) and use those kind of hyms by the high, clear voice of a boy throughout. It's most haunting when Jim - who has forgotten so much else of his earlier life - sings for the Japanese pilots on their last morning - and fits that strange thing about Shanghai, which I've visited since first seeing this film; Shanghai is full of late 19th century European buildings which the English and French left there, and the weird juxtaposition of imported Europe into Asia which is basically what Jim is expresses itself perfectly through this device.

Date: 23 Mar 2006 09:48 (UTC)
ext_15862: (Default)
From: [identity profile] watervole.livejournal.com
Sounds like a film that I must watch.

Date: 23 Mar 2006 10:19 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] selenak.livejournal.com
I just bought the DVD, so it should be out in Britain as well (for rent, too, one hopes). There is a documentary made at the time which has extensive J.G. Ballard interview sections as well. I think you'd like it.

Date: 23 Mar 2006 11:44 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] artaxastra.livejournal.com
I love this movie. Thank you for a beautiful and purposeful review!

Also worth mentioning, my favorite backdrop -- when Jim is struggling through the streets of Shanghai in a crowd of panicked refugees, the giant poster for Gone With the Wind on the wall of a building -- both a homage, and a reminder that this is not the only city.

Date: 23 Mar 2006 15:03 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] selenak.livejournal.com
Yes, the GWTW poster was inspired. And you know, I think it's very typical for the 70s generation of directors to which Spielberg belongs to include that - they're all such film geeks...

Date: 23 Mar 2006 15:36 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] faroutgal.livejournal.com
oh I love this film and I agree that it does not get the proper acclaimation that it deserves.

There were so many memorable moments in this film. One of them is the scene in the field with the chandeliers and cars and furniture. How eerie and surreal that was. I was so moved by Jim's devotion to Mrs. Victor.

That moment when he closes his eyes at the end. I cry every time. I cried reading about it just now.

Date: 23 Mar 2006 15:44 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] selenak.livejournal.com
One of them is the scene in the field with the chandeliers and cars and furniture. How eerie and surreal that was.

Oh yes. That is one of the most haunting images, and captures again the strangeness of Europe-in-Asia-during-war in a surreal peak.

Re: Jim's devotion to Mrs. Victor - I think it got cemented when, after Basie had kicked him out, more or less, she just took him back without saying a word and pinned the few pictures from the papers he had to the wall just where they were, and put his airplane just where it was, thereby showing that she cared very much and knew him.

Date: 23 Mar 2006 15:38 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lady-sarai.livejournal.com
Wow, that sounds like a movie I'll have to check out.

(On a sidenote, my first encounter with Christian Bale was in Newsies, so when I saw that he was Batman, I suddenly envisioned singing-and-dancing on the rooftops. Which probably would not have been as amusing on-screen as it was in my head. ;) But I think he is one AMAZING actor...)

Date: 23 Mar 2006 15:47 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] selenak.livejournal.com
so when I saw that he was Batman, I suddenly envisioned singing-and-dancing on the rooftops. Which probably would not have been as amusing on-screen as it was in my head.

Given how Batman and Robin turned out, I bet not... *shudders in memory of Joel Schumacher*

But yes, he's amazing. And already was as a child. He goes on a remarkable emotional journey in that film, and the quiet intensity he has as later Jim as well as the anger and devastation were all ideal for Bruce Wayne, if you look at it in retrospect...

Date: 24 Mar 2006 19:12 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] meganinhiding.livejournal.com
I was surprised by how much I liked this film when saw it because as you said it never got the attention it deserved. Now that I think about it there is some similarity to Jim and Connor despite the obvious differences. I'm trying to figure out whether Basie or Holtz was the worse father figure; they were both hollow in very different ways.

Date: 24 Mar 2006 20:01 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] selenak.livejournal.com
They were, but I'm voting for Holtz - despite the fact he actually did love Connor (which makes it worse, I think) - because at least Basie never pretended to genuinenly care, which should make it easier for Jim afterwards.

Date: 24 Mar 2006 23:02 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] likeadeuce.livejournal.com
Mmmm, great movie -- it's been a long time since I've seen it, but as soon as I read this, many of those scenes came right back to me. And just thinking of the movie makes me remember that music.

This was the first time I saw Christian Bale in a film -- I saw it when it was fairly knew; I think the first time was in a junior high history class -- but I later saw him in "Little Women" and "Swing Kids" without realizing he was the same actor.

Date: 25 Mar 2006 13:41 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] selenak.livejournal.com
But you realized when you saw Batman Begins, right? *g*

Date: 25 Mar 2006 15:27 (UTC)
From: [identity profile] likeadeuce.livejournal.com
Yeah, I figured out who he was after Swing Kids when I went looking for his old movies.

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