Empire of the Sun is a greater indicator of Steven Spielberg's capacity to show mankind's darker side than Schindler's List. The latter is a film about a good man among oppressors, a diamond in the rough who stands up for what is right in the midst of unspeakable horror. Empire of the Sun, however, is a film about how good people can turn on each other in an instant, about the corrupt among the downtrodden. Where Schindler's List (thankfully) did not attempt to assign motivations for the German population's complicity in the Holocaust, this effort says more about the human condition precisely because the Japanese internment of prisoners of war doesn't carry the same weight in the public consciousness as the Holocaust.
However, for those who have read J.G. Ballard, the cold observer of extreme violence who wrote Crash among many other chilling works, this internment is no less horrifying. Ballard based Empire of the Sun on his own experiences as a child in conquered China during the war, and there can be no doubt that what he saw formed the man who would later write such disturbing fiction. The subject of lost innocence and the dividing line between liberated childhood and the responsibility of maturity is a common one in Spielberg's canon, but here it carries the darker importance of actually being true.
Spielberg opens the film with a graceful track-forward in a preparatory school, moving deeper into a chapel as pre-pubescent schoolboys sing soprano. Only when the camera cuts back to show plainly dressed Chinese people in some of the pews is the audience given any indication that it is not watching a film set in England.
The entire first act expands upon this idea, the total obliviousness of the British occupants of China in the face of Japanese invasion. The opening, somber text scroll notes the apathy of the British residents of China to the takeover, their arrogance blinding them from the possibility that someone -- especially non-whites -- would or could seize them. The parents of Jamie Graham (Christian Bale) take this view, the father casually chipping golf balls into the pool of his luxurious estate and reassuring his son, "China isn't our war."
Even Jamie fits into the mindset, exploiting the family's Chinese maid into letting him have late-night snacks by telling her she must do as he says. The boy is too young to realize the classism and racism in his words, and already Spielberg undercuts the idea of innocence and nostalgia for an era that raised children to views others as inferior based on ethnicity and birthright.
The cluelessness of the British bourgeoisie is highlight shortly thereafter when all the white families dress up for a lavish costume party as the mood in Shanghai darkens. A fleet of chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce cars drive through throngs of tired, dirty Chinese peasants who mill around restlessly as if they feel they should be fleeing but do not yet know why. The score in this section is haunting, lightly dissonant without being overbearing, perfectly matching the drab cinematography (a precursor to the desaturated tones of Saving Private Ryan). At the party, one guest slurs an educated, erudite Chinese man for being in attendance, as if the thought of Chinese running about in China was unspeakable and obscene.
Only when the Japanese at last strike Pearl Harbor do they fully drop the pretense of leaving the Westerners alone. Bombers descend on Shanghai, sending everyone into a panic and separating Jamie from his suddenly sobered parents as waves of fleeing Chinese pour through the smallest gaps. For the first time since Jaws, Spielberg manages to achieve a pure, raging terror in the shots of Jamie watching his mother swept away as he can do nothing to get back to her. A sense of abandonment runs through so many of the director's films as a result of his parents' divorce, but this condenses all such fears -- be it getting lost in a store or seeing parents separate -- and magnifies them in the crush of stampeding bodies.
As Jamie returns to his neighborhood in the hopes of his parents somehow returning home, Spielberg inserts horrifyingly surreal of the vacant streets in the wake of the mass exodus. Looted suitcases lie strewn about on the streets, mirroring later shots in both Schindler's List and War of the Worlds. When Jamie arrives home, he finds a sticker plastered in front of the door saying the house now belongs to the Japanese emperor, a darkly ironic subversion of traditional imperialism, which saw white casually claiming the land of other races as their own. Spielberg even inserted one such shot at the beginning after his marvelous, wordless setup of place and character, cutting from the idyllic British life to an overhead shot of coffins containing dead Chinese floating in the water as a boat lackadaisically knocks them aside. Late in the film, Japanese soldiers march prisoners across hundreds of miles of terrain, and they stumble across a field strewn with old luxuries -- cars, pianos, gilded furniture. It's a treasure trove, but no one gives a damn, tearing apart these items looking for food and drink.
Most disturbing is the coldly vacant interior of Jamie's abandoned house. Just as his parents ignored the terrifying truth at their doorstep, Jamie appears largely content by the whole situation, sure that his parents will return and enjoying free reign of the house in the meantime. He especially his parents' bedroom. Jamie there discovers his mother's footprint enshrined in spilled talcum powder. First, Jamie regards it with light curiosity, even pleasant fondness, an acceptable facsimile for his mother's presence. Then, his eyes scan over the whole room, revealing more urgent foot and palm prints and kicked up talc, suggesting a struggle. The implications finally hit the boy, who becomes so afraid he knocks open a window so the wind will blow away the evidence. In the process, of course, the draft erases the last vestige of his parents.
Eventually, food runs short, and Jamie heads out to find supplies, only to be robbed by a Chinese teen and taken in by Basie (John Malkovich), an American ship steward marooned in conquered Shanghai. Basie, however, proves more dangerous than desperate Chinese peasants or vindictive Japanese soldiers, immediately trying to sell Jamie to a peasant as a servant. Jamie indirectly gets his revenge when he takes Basie back to his rich neighborhood to loot the place, only for Japanese soldiers to jump out of the house and imprison Jamie and Basie's gang.
Up to this moment, Jamie has not allowed himself to process what he's been seeing, but Spielberg bucks expectations by actually enhancing this obliviousness as Jamie is shuffled from a holding area to an interment camp by an airfield. The director roots the atrocities Jamie sees in the boy's perspective, adroitly keeping enough horror off-screen to avoid a PG-13 rating while making the film that much darker by implication and the perverse, rotting innocence. of what we do witness.
Basie, the Fagin to Jamie's Oliver Twist, admires the boy's pluck and exploits the child's attempts to do anything to avoid reality by incorporating him into a complicated trading network that takes the place of money in the camp. In the first camp, designed to separate the able-bodied from the sick, Basie shocks and disgusts Jamie by stealing the shoes of a dying woman to give to the boy, and by stealing potatoes where possible. He's a man with nothing to live for, but Basie will do anything, absolutely anything, to survive. After spending three years in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center, though, Jamie is inured to such sights, and he routinely helps out Basie, though he does balance his actions with a concern for the other prisoners' well-being.
He does so to make life seem as pleasant as possible, but we can see the atrocity through his perspective. The two times Basie is beaten by Japanese soldiers, the camera stays on Jamie's face as he watches his ersatz father figure take his punishment. His other parental symbol, Dr. Rawlins (Nigel Havens), asks him for help in trying to revive a woman with no pulse. Jamie performs CPR frantically until the woman's straight-ahead stare shifts to look at the boy. He thinks he's saving her, but the doctor rightly says he simply pumped enough blood to the brain for one last nervous twitch. A nurse optimistically offers that the woman got the chance to feel as if she died in England by looking on the boy, but all he, and we, can see is her frozen rictus on her clammy face. In the film's darkest moment, Basie sends Jamie through the camp to set snare traps. Williams' score matches the imagination and sense of adventure with which Jamie takes to the task of sneaking around camp and even under the barbed wire that separates the camp from the airfield. Then the camera moves back to Basie and his American crew watching, revealing that the man really sent the boy in there to test for mines. Worse still, he and the others take bets over whether Jamie will trip one and kill himself.
The subtlest transition of the character from a fresh-faced innocent to toughened teen is in his name. When Basie takes James in, he dubs the boy "Jim," and the name sticks even with the British occupants of the POW camp. Jamie creates an image in the mind of the the upper-class, pampered boy that James is at the start, an effete, charming name for a like person. "Jim" is blunt and masculine, suggesting a person who can do much by saying little. When the Americans accept him following their deplorable mine experiment, the name Jim sticks forever, and James grows from the kindly boy still trying to help everyone out to a cocky brat who uses the same self-absorbed lines the Americans used to tell him on the other British children. It is a testament to the writing, Spielberg's pacing and Bale's performance that the shift is more than just nominal: by the end of the film, you'll think of the boy only as Jim.
The humanity of Empire of the Sun catches in the throat. The only bond Jim forms that comes with no strings is with a Japanese teenager training to become a pilot. Jim's love of airplanes gives them a connection that supersedes their language barrier. Their friendship, communicated only in waves and other signs of recognition, is undercut by the knowledge that the Japanese boy is part of the system imprisoning Jim and the others. What's more, he's training to be a kamikaze. But there's no moment in the film more affecting and beautiful than Jim singing the Welsh lullaby he practiced at the start of the film to honor his friend's graduation. Enraptured that someone he knows is becoming a pilot, Jim can't contain himself, but the song is so sad it speaks to the reality of the situation, that the boy will soon be sent on a one-way mission. Even the internment camp's overseer, Sgt. Nagata, is moved by the implications.
Ironically, Americans ruin each of these moments. The joy of watching his friend become a pilot is cut short by American P-51 Mustangs launching a surprise raid on the airfield. Their arrival brings back Jim's ethnocentrism, and he cheers the planes until Dr. Rawlins makes him take cover, at which point the sight of American saviors brings the revelation that Jim no longer remembers his family. When a sick woman, Mrs. Victor (Miranda Richardson), dies in the long march that ensues from the camp being destroyed, a blinding light fills the sky as Jim looks over her body. He believes it to be her soul ascending to heaven, only to learn later that it was the flash of the Nagasaki bomb detonating hundreds of miles away, the very opposite of a transcendental moment. How many souls are contained in that light, and could a blast hotter than the sun vaporize not only the flesh but the spiritual being as well? At last, Jim leaves the group to return to the camp, unwilling to hike so far for the slim chance of food, and he finds his friend, who offers him a mango. Then, Basie returns with his gang, and they shoot the teen dead before Jim's eyes.
Some bill Empire of the Sun as a coming-of-age tale, but that's not exactly true. Jim loses his innocence, to be sure, but he does not truly grow from it. As with A.I., the ending of Empire of the Sun is doomed to be regarded as sappy and upbeat. Jim is reunited with his parents as music swells, and at last the family becomes whole again. Yet the boy, even when he at last collapses into his mother's arms, is changed, and his eyes, hollowed out and filled with dulled pain, communicate that this boy cannot return to normalcy so easily as his parents, and something in him is broken forever. He does not recognize his parents, and when he finally does and falls into his mother's arms, he does so less out of joy than the desperate hope that, by doing so, he might revert to a time when everything he's seen wasn't true. If he can act like a normal child, perhaps he won't ever have to fully face what he's seen. This also explains why he pedals a bike around the empty camp in the wake of Basie and co. shooting his friend. He pedals with vacant glee, riding in circles not only to mirror his earlier bike tour through his empty house but also in a subconscious attempt to reverse the Earth's spin and turn back time to when all of this had not happened. Two images near the end sear into the brain: first, Spielberg shows Jim trying to revive his Japanese friend, splicing the image to switch between the boy and a vision of a dead Jamie, still clad in his schoolboy outfit. Second, Spielberg uses the final shot to return to a suitcase Jim took with him out of the camp that he finally threw into a lake when he realized how much it weighed him down. Both of these shots communicate one thing: Jamie died back in that camp. Jim is returning home with Jamie's parents, and it's only a matter of time before their uneasy reunion collapses. That will leave Jim truly alone, as his final response is not to grow up but to harden into chrysalis. Stunted and scarred, no amount of pampering will make him soft again.
The film is, however, a coming-of-age story for its maker, who at last finds a way to make serious movies within his style without rough disconnect. The darker moments of E.T. and The Color Purple too often clashed harshly with the director's old tricks, the slapstick moments of both undermining the severity instead of providing a more complete emotional range. Empire of the Sun may be more dour overall, but it's believable. It's odd to think, though, that this should be Spielberg's darkest film yet, as it's the first one where he finally trusts a child fully to tell a story about childhood. Bale gives one of the great child performances, and I don't think any young actor -- in an English-speaking film, at least -- matched it until Natalie Portman gave her first and best work in The Professional. Like the French dying on their plantation in the extended cut of Apocalypse Now, Jamie is a man without country: he's never even seen England, but he will never be considered Chinese. Bale captures this cultural disconnect perfectly even as he embodies the more immediate concerns of lost innocence and reaction to atrocity. It is no wonder that he would grow up to be one of the most intense actors working today.
The complexity of Spielberg's tracking shots for the first time take on a grace, no longer about speed and liberation but of elegiac observation. The camera gets one last good look at everything before it disappears forever. David Lean originally helmed the project, and when Spielberg took over he saw his chance to make his own Bridge Over the River Kwai. But Spielberg moves beyond simple imitation of Lean's grandeur -- a display of maturity in the face of his open quotation of old serials in the Indiana Jones movies -- into something more personal. The romanticism of Jamie's perception influences the direction, but so too does the reality, and when those American fighters strafe the internment camp as Jim watches with mouth agape, the two perceptions blur into overload. Fear and exhilaration, never that far apart to being with, become one, and in liberating Jim, the Americans also provide the final force that breaks his brain. This is not the Steven Spielberg who made Jaws. It is not even the one who made The Color Purple. This is a Spielberg in full and complete control not only of his craft but what he wishes to say with it. The result is such a dynamic leap forward for the director it took him nearly another decade just to catch up with himself.