Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Empire Of The Sun

I sometimes find myself blowing the dust off of older movies and giving them another go. I normally don't watch a movie more than once unless enough time has passed that I have forgotten much of the film. Such is the case with Steven Spielberg's 1987 hit Empire of the Sun. I vaguely recalled some of the scenes as the film progressed, but it was almost like watching the film for the first time (I hope that isn't a sign of senility setting in).

The film opens with a choir singing in a very European looking church in Shanghai, China. A somewhat distracted but talented young soprano delivers his solo with amazing precision before drifting away again to some other distraction. We soon learn that the young man is named Jamie Graham (Christian Bale). His father, John Graham (Rupert Frazer) is wealthy and connected in China. However, a different wind is blowing in from the east...a Divine Wind. The Japanese have 50,000 troops in China and Shanghai appears to be squarely in their sights.

With a surprise attack launched on the city, the Grahams attempt to make it to the waterfront to board a boat to safety. In the crush of people running frantically from Japanese tanks and foot soldiers, Jamie becomes separated from his mother (Emily Richard). Jamie wanders aimlessly as the passage of time becomes visually evident. Jamie seems to be a smartass kid, but incredibly intelligent. Combine those qualities with a strange street savvy, and you have a character that easily wins the affinity of those around him while finding ways to make the system work for him. He is aided in his street schooling by a Fagan-like character named Basie (John Malkovich). Basie's lackey Joey "pants" Pantiolano) appears to feel threatened by the gifted young boy, but keeps his feelings to himself. The dynamics between the group vary from protection and friendship to alienation and using. But it seems it is Jamie (who has been renamed "Jim" by his new tutor) that brings a ray of light to the interment camp where they eventually find themselves.

While watching this film again, I was able to see it in a broader light based on Spielberg's other work in the interim. The film has an E.T. like quality with a child star and mild glossing over of the harsh realities of life in an internment camp. The death part was portrayed as a stark reality, but the survival aspects were portrayed with some whimsy. It worked for this type of film, which was somewhere between E.T. and Schindler's List, but closer to the E.T. end of the spectrum. Tom Stoppard adapted this story to a screenplay from the novel written by J.G. Ballard. The plot combines strong characters with an intense background and unusual combinations of respect and honor. Young Jim is not only a gifted intellect, but his love of aviation and sense of honor give him an eerie connection to his Japanese captors, putting him in a delicate position to create balance in the camp. The story allows for some betrayal, harsh treatment and even sensuality, but does not dwell on the depressing aspects as much as the survival point of view...which is what makes this film different and special. It is not supposed to be Schindler's List and succeeds on its own merit. An enjoyable, touching story complete with a happy ending.

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