About 18 years before he became 1 of the best interpretations of Batman not to be named Michael Keaton, Kevin Conroy and Adam West (Yes, lets go down that route, for pure self-deprecating cheese, nobody can top the awesomeness of the ‘West), Christian Bale was a child actor who already had 2 movie credits to his name, even if 1 was a TV Period Drama and the other was a Scandinavian Fantasy movie that also featured Christopher Lee. To say Empire Of The Sun is his big break would probably be an understatement when you consider this fact that it’s directed by the legendary Steven Spielberg. Anyway, lets talk a bit about this film.
Empire Of The Sun is a slightly different World War 2 film to come out of the west. It begins in 1941 during the conflict of the 2nd Sino-Japanese War, which was happening at exactly the same time as the World War (and had been going on for an extra 2 years before it). Our focus is entirely on the life and story of a young British boy named Jamie Graham (played by Christian Bale). Jamie lives in the Shanghai International Settlement of Shanghai, China. An incredible looking upper class neighbourhood full of large, Western-style mansions. He’s an incredibly spoiled and privileged child, with an enormous toy aeroplane collection. He is rude towards his parents’ housekeepers (all of them Chinese), takes everything for granted without considering long-term possibly or consequence, likes to be a bit rebellious, and he goes to a Catholic School where he is also an alter boy (1 thing you’ll also notice is that they dubbed Bale’s singing voice…probably because he needs to talk like Batman later on). Jamie’s life is so sheltered that his knowledge of what is going on around him is limited so he can be a happy, care-free child. However, when he stumbles across a Imperial Japanese Camp near a costume-party he was attending with his parents, a crack begins to form, and the Chinese homeless man outside his house isn’t the only 1 that gives him hints of life outside everything he knows.
Jamie’s father becomes more on-edge while attempting to maintain his son’s innocence. He takes them all to a hotel to stay for a few days. That night, Jamie sees a Japanese fleet, and out of ignorance decides to playfully morse-code them with his flashlight, leading to an attack on the harbour. Soon, his life completely changes, as he becomes separated from his mother and father after dropping his small metal plane and deciding to reclaim it…in a fevered crowd trying to escape the Japanese troops marching through the streets and tanks running over vehicles. His mother cries out to go back to the house and wait for them.
What happens next is basically any child’s worst nightmare, or at least 1 of them, especially for someone who was used to great comfort and privilege like Jamie. He manages to return back to his family home. Which has now been claimed as Japanese property. It is clear that some of the housekeepers were taken away by force, while he runs into others who were escaping with some valuables. Demanding to know what was going on, 1 of the housekeepers slaps Jamie. An indication that this relationship had officially changed with the situation. Now completely alone, Jamie stays at the house, waiting for the return of his parents. In time, everything falls into neglect. The swimming pool completely dries up and becomes littered with autumn leaves. There is no longer any running water, and all of the food in the house is completely eaten and gone. It is then out of hunger that Jamie rushes into town, looking to surrender to the Japanese and be taken to a prison where he may hopefully be fed. It is there that he meets Frank Demarest (played by Joe Pantoliano) who introduces Jamie to Basie (played by John Malkovich), who nicknames him Jim. After trying to somehow reward them for giving him food, Jamie/Jim tells them that his neighbourhood is full of valuables they could take…but going back to Jim’s neighbourhood eventually leads to them arriving in a P.O.W. Camp, as they are captured by Japanese Soldiers occupying a house they were going to burgle, and this is where our 2nd act truly begins and onwards.
What if I told you that this movie is partly true? That the story is based on the experience that writer J. G. Ballard had during the war? (only in real life he wasn’t separated from his parents, but his experience in the POW Camp is said to have shaped his writing). It is also a film that demonstrates an amazing amount of growth and change in our main character, who went from a spoiled, materialistic young boy, into a seemingly shell-shocked young teenager. Is it a coming-of-age film? Indeed it could be called that. Whether for better or worse in his maturity, you could say that Jim became a man by the 3rd act…or at least a much less materialistic boy than before. Either Christian Bale was an excellent child actor, or Steven Spielberg is fantastic at directing children, or both…probably both. It’s difficult not to praise his performance, let alone John Malkovich’s charismatic 1 as well.
So many things about this film were brilliant. The fact that it managed to have a sense of humour while not taking away from the tragedy of the situation is without a doubt fantastic, as it makes the film 1 with everything, a perfect balance of humanity within 2/3 hours. The prisoners in the camp actually lived in it like a small neighbourhood or Ghetto, primarily consisting of Brits and Americans as neighbours. The POW Camp Doctor even becomes a substitute father figure for Jim. Teaching him literature, as well as hoping he’ll develop more humility. It also shows that many Japanese Soldiers were simply men fighting for their country (and saw it as an honour) rather than monsters looking for an excuse to destroy gaijin races (I said many, but there were obviously psychopaths among them as well, 1 in every 100 apparently). John Williams did the score, and obviously it was top notch. Great cinematography, great characters, great story with lots of excellent ‘show don’t tell’ and great acting from everybody (Including Miranda Ricardson, who just the year before was playing Queen Elizabeth I in Blackadder 2…to say the least, her role in this and in Blackadder couldn’t get anymore bipolar). You might also notice a small appearance from a 21 year old Ben Stiller, and legend has it he got the idea for Tropic Thunder while working on this movie. It is a film that will never need to be remade, and can’t be remade. A remake would never match this in brilliance. Worth seeing? Damn right. And by the end of it, you might ask yourself if you too…would like a Hershey Bar.
Overall Rating: ***** out of 5