Christian Bale's Shanghai Surprise
"Empire of the Sun" is a war movie, it takes us to Shanghai in 1941 and we watch how following Pearl Harbour life is turned upside down for the British and American's who live there. But "Empire of the Sun" is not your usual sort of war movie because firstly it is based on the memoirs of J.G. Ballard and as such is a story told through the eyes of a young British boy as his life of privilege is ripped away and he ends up in PoW camp. And secondly it is a movie without a point, there is no political message or lessons about war on show just a tale of a young boy surviving war in Shanghai. Maybe that doesn't sound that interesting but it certainly is and Steven Spielberg does a brilliant job of bringing Ballard's memoir's to life in an entertaining manner, sometimes over egging things for dramatic effect but for most just showing us war through the eyes of this young boy.
As a young boy living in Shanghai in 1941, Jim Graham's (Christian Bale - Public Enemies) life is one of privilege but all that changes on December 8th 1941 as the Japanese invade Shanghai. Separated from his mum and dad, Jim tries to carry on as normal returning to their now abandoned home but as food runs out he gets increasingly desperate before ending up with a couple of American mercenaries. Eventually Jim along with the Americans are captured and end up in the Soo Chow confinement camp with many other Brits and Americans. Whilst the camp is riddled with sickness and a very different life to what he had known Jim keeps on going, creating a new life for himself in the camp as he not only scavenges and trades for goods for his American friends but also for the sick he sees around him.
"Empire of the Sun" covers what life was like for young Jim both before and after Pearl Harbour and as such there is almost an episodic feel to it. The first episode shows what life was like prior to Pearl Harbour the fact that Jim lead a privileged life, chauffeur driven with a nanny he would boss around. There is almost a sense of decadence to it with elements such as his father hitting golf balls across the pool and the huge fancy dress party they attend driving through the crowded streets of desperate people to get there. Yet at the same time we realise that war was on their doorstep, soldiers patiently waiting just over the hill so to speak and you get a sense that the Brits and Americans living in Shanghai were living on borrowed time.
Then with some quite stunning cinematography we have the chaos which comes from the attacks and Jim ending up separated from his parents, alone scavenging for food having made it back to their home and learning a lot of harsh lessons at the same time. You really get to see war from a child's perspective, not important enough for the troops to really care about but easy prey for anyone who wants to have a go at him. And at the same time you also get a sense of the looting which went on as fugitives lived almost in the shadows, mercilessly going about their business.
All of which takes up the first half of "Empire of the Sun" before it shifts to the Soo Chow camp where all the British and American residents are kept. And again it's a fascinating look at life from a young boy's point of view. On one hand here is this young boy who adores planes in a camp right next to an airfield where he can watch the Japanese planes come and go. You then have the sense of normality as the British doctor tries to provide him with some form of education as he helps out. And then you have the mercenary American soldiers who use him to trade and bring them goods. It makes this time in the camp almost an adventure, danger from planes dropping bombs, dealing with the strict Japanese guards yet making friends and making a name for himself.
Plus there is more because as war progresses so does Jim's story his belief that one day he will meet up with his parents. His realisation that not everyone can be trusted even when they seem friends and also that colour means nothing when it comes to friendship and loyalty. All of this doesn't really have a point, there are no huge lessons about war being delivered but a fascinating look at war through the eyes of a young boy.
Now for the most Steven Spielberg gets this spot on he allows Jim's tale, his adventures and his brushes with danger to progress naturally. But there are occasions where it feels like Spielberg has lacked faith in this simple tale and tried to make more of various scenes that need be. Confrontations between Jim and American's Basie and Frank occasionally feel forced and certain brushes with danger feel too staged as if someone said this story needs more action and danger. Despite the occasional feeling of being forced the cinematography is magnificent and there is scene after stunning scene be it the chaos of Jim losing his parents in the crowded streets or an explosion when a bomb is dropped.
Now there are a lot of recognizable faces in "Empire of the Sun" John Malkovich, Joe Pantoliano, Miranda Richardson, Nigel Havers and Leslie Phillips all have crucial parts to play but yet the star is a young Christian Bale as Jim Graham. And what a brilliant job young Bale does because he takes us on this journey and the changes which he has to deal with from the realisation that his privileged life has gone though to his toughening up as a scavenger in the camp. And more importantly as "Empire of the Sun" wends its way towards the credits we can feel that this young boy, this carefree child has changed by what he witnessed and did during the war. The almost haunted look he delivers in the emotional final scenes is just brilliant.
What this all boils is that "Empire of the Sun" is a surprisingly good movie and one which gives us a different look at war, through the eyes of a young boy in Shanghai. It does feel strange that it doesn't have a point but the story of Jim as he goes from a privileged young boy to a prisoner in a camp is a fascinating one. And whilst Steven Spielberg does occasionally over egg the drama the journey which young Christian Bale takes us on as Jim is well acted as is the transformation of his character.