Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun is another in the line of excellent films coming to Hobart at the moment. It's also another in the long line of films coming under the banner of Steven Spielberg. With his vast commercial entertainment empire now running under its own steam (others make the films and he puts his name to them), Spielberg has, luckily for us, decided to return his own directing skills to exploring serious themes of lasting importance. Somewhat ironically, Spielberg's standing as master of science fiction films was what prompted J.G. Ballard, science fiction author, to let Spielberg film his semi-autobiographical bestseller.

The film opens in classic Spielberg manner, dwelling on the themes of childhood and childhood day-dreams, as we follow the way-of-life of young Jim Graham, a child of wealthy British parents living in the International Settlement in Shanghai, 1941. The ubiquitous John Williams soundtrack permeates everything to excess, as Jim plays with his favourite toys, model planes and gliders. In fact this first part of the film seemed overdone while watching it: almost a transplant from E.T. But in retrospect it represents perfectly the unreality of Jim's life to that point—he was living a Spielberg film.

It is once he moves outside his transplanted British house that the film gains momentum. A chauffer-driven ride through the streets of Shanghai reveals how unnatural his life is—Jim is totally removed from the masses of struggling people which make up the real Asia. Spielberg's handling of these scenes is masterful: he creates a feeling of total claustrophobia. This feeling is even more powerful in the scenes when the Japanese finally abandon all pretences of International Agreements and take over Shanghai: the number of people trying to escape is so huge that Jim is swept away from his parents and lost in the streets.

To go into too much detail about any of the plot following would be to spoil the effect of the film upon the viewer. Suffice it to say that once removed from the now non-existent world of the British sector and placed in the real Shanghai, Jim is a total alien (a situation Spielberg knows how to portray all too well!). Inevitably he ends up in a Japanese prison camp.

In the second half of the film, four years later, Jim has become the "streetwise kid" of the camp and perfectly adapted to this new life—it is all he knows. Spielberg's direction, again, is masterful, although he does lapse into a bit of schmaltz towards the end. But after a totally absorbing two and a half hours, I'll forgive him.

The film is visually superb; the screenplay (writlen by renowned playwright Tom Stoppard) is perfectly paced; and the performances are top-notch, especially that of Christian Bale (as both Jim aged 11 in Shanghai and Jim aged 15 in Japan), but also that of John Malkovich as the in-control American, Basie.

Despite one or two lapses into his old somewhat cliched style, Spielberg has done an excellent job on this film. The comparisons with Bertolucci's The Last Emperor are unavoidable, and it's fair enough to say the latter wins out in a direct comparison, but that's only because The Last Emperor is brilliant while Empire of the Sun is 'merely' very, very good indeed. Certainly Spielberg's depictions of the masses of humanity that typify Asia, the barbarism of the internment camp, and the inappropriateness of those Britons having been transplanted into an Asian world, all have no counterparts in Bertolucci's film.

The only possible recommendation is that you not miss either of these excellent films. Both are epics which will be remembered for years to come, and both should be seen on the big screen where they belong.


First published in Togatus, 24 March 1988.
This page: 27 February 2000; last modified 8 May 2018.

©1988, 2000 Rory Ewins