Friday, August 19, 2011

Overlooked Gems #1: Empire of the Sun

Grade: 92 (A)

Steven Spielberg spent the first decade of his career releasing the sublime, heartfelt popcorn entertainments of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, and his masterpiece E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. He made his bid as a “serious” filmmaker with his respectable but overpraised adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Roger Ebert named it the best film of the year, and the film was nominated for 10 Oscars (Spielberg himself was strangely snubbed for Best Director). After the success of The Color Purple, Spielberg set his sights on a more difficult adaptation: J.G. Ballard’s memoir Empire of the Sun, based on Ballard’s account of his survival after the Japanese invasion of Shanghai and his experiences in an internment camp. Those expecting the same warmth of E.T. or The Color Purple exited the film scratching their heads, many critics disliked the film (Gene Siskel exclaimed that he didn’t know what the film was really about after viewing it), and the film’s showing at the Academy Awards was disappointing. The release next to John Boorman’s similar, humorous, more immediately satisfying Hope and Glory didn’t help. And in the years since Spielberg’s acclaim for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, Empire of the Sun remains mostly unrecognized; an oddity that paved the way for future triumphs only to be Spielberg’s most overlooked film. It may come as a surprise to some, as it did to me, that it is also one of his most beautiful, rewarding, emotionally mature works.

1941: Jamie (later “Jim”) Graham (a young Christian Bale in a remarkable debut) lives in British occupied Shanghai. Jim comes from a wealthy family and is well educated. He is an innocent young boy, but not a particularly kindly one. He is spoiled, arrogant (his mistreatment of the Chinese servants in his home early on separates him from previous Spielberg protagonist Elliott from E.T.), and his questions about a beggar outside his home comes more from curiosity than concern. His declaration of his atheism to a wealthy friend comes more from a way to impress and provoke than anything else. More than anything else, Jim is fascinated by airplanes, and when he finds a downed plane near a friend’s home, his first instinct is to play in it.

Jim’s parents and many other Britons attempt to escape when Shanghai is invaded, but Jim is separated from his them in the chaos. Spielberg had dealt with children in frightening situations before, but here Jim is in the middle of a war zone, alone. When Jim returns home, he finds the servants are taking what they can find of his parents’ possessions. Jim confronts one he disrespected earlier. She slaps him, giving him a well-deserved come-uppance and a wake-up call: this is no longer your home.

Jim survives alone before meeting an American rogue named Basie (John Malkovich), who first tries to sell Jim into slavery before finding use for him. Jim and Basie wind up in an internment camp along with other Americans and Britons.

Empire of the Sun is one of Spielberg’s darkest films. The relationship between Jim and Basie is comparable to that of Fagin to the children of Oliver Twist: one of continuous exploitation. Jim uses skills learned from Basie to survive while Basie uses Jim to gain advantage over others. The internment camp is disease-ridden and dirty, and that’s the safe place to be. A sequence in which Jim struggles to find a way into the camp is particularly frightening. What makes the film such a harrowing experience is that it is the first Spielberg film to deal with the end of childhood innocence rather than celebrate it. The child survivors of Schindler’s List, Private James Ryan of Saving Private Ryan, and David of A.I. all branch off from the need of Jim’s childhood to end for him to survive a traumatic experience.

Yet for all of its horrors and all of its sadness, Empire of the Sun is full of lovely, lyrical sequences. Spielberg has always been a masterful visual storyteller, and early on he uses the servants’ involuntary waving to Jim’s family as a way to show the inequality of Shanghai and the dynamic of the world. Jim’s fascination with airplanes is framed with such wonder and awe that some gorgeous images at the end of the first act only heighten the impact of Jim’s fall from grace. John Williams’ score, one of his finest, is full of achingly beautiful moments, sadness and joy. Perhaps one of the greatest touches in the film, though, is the use of the Welsh lullaby “Suo Gan”, first as an introduction, then as a salute, and finally as a source of catharsis. Jim has seen horrible things, but he has survived, and now, through love, he can heal.

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