Here’s the first in a series I am calling Mike’s Underappreciated Movies. MUM #1 is Steven Spielberg’s most underrated directorial effort, Empire of the Sun. I remember seeing it in the theater when I was about eight years old, and it became one of those movies that was always in my house even if none of my friends had ever seen it.
In a nutshell, it is the story of a spoiled English boy named Jim (played by a 12 year-old Christian Bale) living in China with his wealthy parents at the outbreak of World War II. When the Japanese invade Shanghai, Jim is separated from his family. He lives on the streets, befriends some shady Americans (John Malkovich and Joe Pantoliano), and ends up in a prison camp next to a Japanese airfield for the duration of the war.
If all that sounds pretty depressing, it is, but Spielberg goes through great pains to show these events as a kid would see them – horrific and sad, to be sure, but with a child’s sense of excitement, beauty and even humor. Empire of the Sun contains many of Spielberg’s recurring themes: the Lost Boy, the distant father, flight, and a World War II setting. You can see him warming up for later projects. The scenes on the streets of Shanghai and the prison camp are echoed in “Schindler’s List.” The terrifying invasion sequences (especially those in the car) and images of rivers choked with corpses would resurface in “War of the Worlds.” One could argue that this movie has several parallels to the Spielberg-produced “An American Tail”, which was released around the same time.
What sets this flick apart are the settings, style, and performances. If there’s another movie out there about rich Brits in China during World War II, I haven’t seen it. In fact, how often do we get World War II movies with an Asian view (even if it’s filtered through American and English eyes)? Sad to say, I have very little knowledge of what the Chinese went through during the war. Based on this movie, I would like to know more. Also, why haven’t we seen more Japanese films about the era? God knows they have some stories to tell and some fantastic filmmakers who are up to the challenge, but I digress. The film’s contrast between the lifestyles of the wealthy Europeans and the impoverished Chinese is very striking. One early shot nails this point home brilliantly: Jim’s family and friends are on their way to an opulent costume party just before the invasion. To get there, they must be driven through the crowded streets of Shanghai in their expensive cars. One of the rich women is made up to look like Marie Antoinette. She stares out of her car’s window in a daze at hundreds of desperate peasants. She feels safe in her fancy car, but is completely surrounded. The revolution is coming, along with the guillotine.
Another brilliant but strange sequence comes late in the film. The British and Americans have been uprooted from their prison camp and have migrated across the plains to an abandoned stadium. The stadium has been filled with chandeliers, grand pianos, and fine furnishings that were looted from the Westerners’ homes after the invasion. There is very little dialogue, and the way cinematographer Allen Daviau captures the surreal setting with gorgeous early-morning light is magical and creepy all at once.
In terms of spectacle, Spielberg does not disappoint. On that basis, this is probably the closest he has ever come to emulating his idol, David Lean. Since this movie was made in the mid-1980’s you can be sure that the thousands of people fleeing tanks and crossing vast wastelands are not digital extras. Many of those 1940s planes flying past the airfield in perfect synch with practical explosions are quite real. Whatever miniatures were used are impossible to spot.
If for nothing else, rent this movie to see Christian Bale. I can’t think of another performance by a child that covers such a breadth of emotional and physical demands. He starts off as an effete brat that you want to slap (thankfully, his Chinese nanny does that for us), loses his parents, nearly starves on the streets of a war-torn city, becomes a gutsy, peace-keeping busybody in a refugee camp, crawls through mud, has a nervous breakdown, is betrayed by a friend, and somehow emerges as a peculiar but likeable kid. Bale is in nearly every scene, is always convincing, and there is never a split second of Child Actor Cuteness. Put this flick next to “American Psycho” and “Batman Begins” and you will see that this guy has tremendous range, and should be around for a very long time.
The movie isn’t perfect. John Williams’ music is absolutely gorgeous, but a bit overbearing. I wish I knew more about Miranda Richardson’s character. The kamikaze pilots saluting Jim is a beautiful image but is kinda cheesy. These are minor quibbles. There’s a lot of great stuff in this flick, and you should definitely check it out.
Oh, yeah. Ben Stiller has a couple of lines in it, too.