Thursday, December 1, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.10: Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with December dedicated to his “mature” films. Next, 1987’s Empire of the Sun.

Grade: 92 (A)

After the critical and commercial 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 release next to John Boorman’s similar, humorous, more immediately satisfying Hope and Glory didn’t help. 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, then, that it is also one of his most beautiful, rewarding, emotionally mature works.

1941: Jamie “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. Jim’s parents and many other Britons attempt to escape when Shanghai is invaded, but Jim is separated from them in the chaos.. He 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 and spend the rest of the war there alongside other Americans and Britons.

The film breaks new ground for Spielberg, but there’s old influences aplenty. His mastery of Hitchcockian suspense is as strong as ever. The film’s first twenty five minutes are wracked with tension, with war ready to put an end to Jim’s privileged existence. A later scene involving Jim sneaking out of the camp to set traps for a pheasant is similarly strong. Like The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun borrows clearly from Gone with the Wind (even going so far as to show the film’s poster). But where the previous film took many of the melodrama’s flaws, Empire takes only the perfectly crafted scenes of a city falling apart...only here, they’re much darker. There’s even a Howard Hawks “men on a mission” storyline of sorts (more on that later).

Spielberg’s clearest influence here is David Lean (who originally wanted to direct the film). The film’s internment camp scenes are frequently reminiscent of Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, one of Spielberg’s favorite films. Malkovich and the other American prisoners plan to escape while the British try to keep their way of life while living under Japanese rules (Kwai all over again). Many shots have the same epic sweep of Lean’s greatest films (Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia).

Lean was a master at telling stories through images, and Spielberg’s reimagining of his style makes for compelling filmmaking. The opening sequences have some of the richest images in Spielberg’s career: British-ruled Shanghai is a haven for the colonists, but there’s little regard for the Chinese in the city. When Jim’s family goes for a drive, the forced smiles and waves from their Chinese servants speak volumes. When the family drives through the city to go to a costume party, their opulence contrasts the rest of the city’s squalor. When Jim arrives at his old house after the Japanese overrun the city, his family’s pool is full. After some time there’s a later shot, and the water has gone down. Later still there’s another shot, and the pool is empty. When a former servant slaps Jim for an earlier slight, there are no words, but message is clear: “This is no longer your home”.

Perhaps most notable is the relationship between Jim and Basie. Basie is intrigued by Jim’s intelligence, but he only keeps him around for as long as he’s useful. The relationship takes on a Fagin/Oliver Twist dynamic (Lean famously adapted the Dickens novel).There’s some subversion of past Spielberg works in that relationship as well. In his review on At the Movies, Gene Siskel compared Malkovich’s character to Indiana Jones, saying that the relationship was confused and vague. It’s far better defined than Siskel gave the film credit, but the Indiana Jones comparison is apt in a way he didn’t intend. Jones was an adventurer, a matinee idol (albeit an updated one). He was someone kids could look up to. Basie is a mysterious adventurer in his own right, and Jim looks up to him, but he does not have Jones’ inner goodness. He uses men and women only so far as they’re useful, and he’s not above betraying his loyal friends (right-hand man Joe Pantoliano). Jim might be a devoted Short Round style sidekick to Basie, but don’t expect Basie to care for him any longer than he has to.

It’s not the only subversion of previous Spielberg works. Empire of the Sun is the first of his films to deal with the dark side of childhood. Jim is not a lonely, kindhearted soul like Elliott from E.T., but rather a selfish kid. His interest in the beggar outside his luxurious home is one of curiosity rather than concern. His smug declaration of his atheism is meant to provoke. His respect for the Japanese military is sometimes frightening. Most notably, his thoughtless treatment of his family’s servant leads to a well-deserved slap later on. Jim doesn’t learn the consequences of his actions until he himself is exploited by Basie; it’s another one of Spielberg’s explorations of how human selfishness blinds people to their treatment of others, and it’s one of the most powerful.

If Jim isn’t exactly a sweet kid, he still has a certain innocence to him that every child has. His interest in airplanes and Japanese military is understandable, and his child’s eye view of the war allows him to live several years relatively unscathed. The film’s first two acts are a testament to the resilience of children.

But it can’t last forever, and as things get desperate, Jim’s eyes are finally opened to the brutality of war. There’s a parallel with a Japanese boy forced into the military: the two form an understanding through the internment camp wires. By the end, everything they knew as children has died. There are several scenes that echo the Peter Pan style moments of E.T., but with different endings. In E.T., love could bring the alien back. In Empire, Jim’s insistence that he “can bring everyone back” proves heartbreakingly false. It isn’t as bleak a tale on the hardships of war on children as Grave of the Fireflies, but it’s one of Spielberg’s darkest films nonetheless. If E.T. was the ultimate celebration of childhood innocence, then Empire of the Sun is about the death of childhood innocence. The saddest reality is that it’s all necessary: like later Spielberg characters (David of A.I., Private Ryan, the children of Schindler’s List), Jim is a true “lost boy” (subversion of Peter Pan again), a child wandering in a fallen world, and it’s necessary that his childhood ends if he’s to survive.

Jim’s respect for the Japanese military takes on a new dynamic as he comes of age. Any pie-eyed devotion to the system is gone by the end; like any system in a Spielberg movie, it’s corruptible, and it will eventually break down. The British system in Shanghai fell, and eventually the internment camp fails. But the men behind the military are not monsters. They are but men, forced to do horrible things in order to preserve their way of life. Jim learns to respect the men behind the force, and that’s a key development in Spielberg’s filmography. In Schindler’s List, a Nazi party member could be redeemed through an act of goodness. In Saving Private Ryan, senseless acts of violence were done by great, honorable men. In Munich, great men do something for their country and lose their souls in the process. Empire is the first in this series of ethically complex Spielberg films.

There are several New Hollywood techniques employed in the film, from rich, dynamic sets to more realistic consequences than older films. The internment camp of Empire of the Sun 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. If he doesn’t get in, he’s stuck wandering the streets of Shanghai, hanging on to his dear life at every turn.

The use of overlapping dialogue is perhaps the most interesting. There’s several traditional scenes focusing on multiple arguments and thought-processes at once, but there’s also a new use in Empire of the Sun: overlapping songs. A choir sings the gorgeous Welsh lullaby “Suo Gan” early in the film. Later, when Jim witnesses a kamikaze ritual, the Japanese pilots sing a song of tribute. Jim salutes the pilots and launches into a heartfelt rendition of “Suo Gan”. The camera then cuts to the emaciated prisoners of the camp. The lullaby takes a mournful tone, one of loss and heartbreak rather than comfort. These men and women have seen hell, and it’s not even over yet.

When Spielberg’s previous film, The Color Purple, was released, it was seen as a bold, triumphant step towards Spielberg’s evolution as an artist. Empire of the Sun was seen as an admirable, ambitious film full of great moments but hopelessly muddled and a disappointing follow-up. It’s hard to believe that so many people got it mixed up: The Color Purple is a frequently powerful but frustrating film with no sense of tone and a certain faltering in confidence. Empire of the Sun is a far-more assured step forward, with a better handling of its predecessor’s new themes and the introduction of several other important ones. This is the real declaration of artistic maturity from Spielberg, and a hint at the upcoming power of films as diverse as Saving Private Ryan, Munich, A.I., and Spielberg’s next period film: Schindler’s List.

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