(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem about the middle of something, so I applied that theme to another film about sudden and distressing circumstances.)
The peace we always took for granted vanishes, no warning paid,
And thoughts and fears and new frontiers take precedence as comforts fade.
This change of fortunes must be fleeting, say the victims who pretend.
Keep the faith, a little longer, don’t give up, our angels cheer;
Those who dare say, “Halfway there,” but that just means to persevere,
For how are we to know the middle when we cannot see the end?
Some are born to dream in darkness; some are born to bear its weight;
Some are born, it seems, to mourn with equal chance to hope or hate.
They all survive on how they face experiences no one should.
The start of hardship can unsettle, and its end can overwhelm,
What one endures between assures the rest of us who’s at the helm.
The middle of a tragedy reveals the evil and the good.
MPAA rating: PG (should be PG-13)
Empire of the Sun has never had the same reputation as Steven Spielberg’s other films. No one I know quotes famous lines or references famous scenes from it, but even Spielberg’s less prominent films confirm him as a consummate filmmaker, whether he’s directing fun actioners or serious historical narratives like this one. Little attention is usually paid to China during World War II, much less the foreigners living there at the time, but Empire of the Sun takes inspiration from J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel, tracing one British boy’s survival story through the hardships of war.
While the cinematography, score, and direction are awe-inspiring in their epic scope, this film belongs to Christian Bale, whose first major performance as the teenage Jamie Graham has to rank among the finest child actor performances ever. He runs the full gamut of emotions, from his spoiled brat ways as a well-to-do schoolboy in Shanghai to his ever more desperate attempts at clinging to normalcy in the wake of being separated from his parents and forced to survive in an uncaring land. He nails the euphoria and admiration of a boy obsessed with the glory of war planes (“Cadillac of the sky!”), as well as the shock and sorrow of witnessing the loss of everything he held dear. A lesser performance couldn’t have supported such a long movie, but Bale distinguished himself early as a strong and versatile performer.
The always great John Malkovich also pops up intermittently as Basie, an American whose experience and leadership cause Jamie to latch onto him as an anchor amidst the chaos, even if he doesn’t recognize Basie’s repeated selfishness. Joe Pantoliano, Nigel Havers, and Miranda Richardson also do good work in supporting roles along Jamie’s journey, and apparently Ben Stiller was in it too, though I don’t remember seeing him.
Spielberg provides sharp contrast between Jamie’s privileged upbringing and the native squalor surrounding it—an early scene has a convoy of Britishers headed to a costume party besieged by the destitute masses—and the fall from status of Jamie and his fellow moneyed class is hard-felt as they are soon reduced to fighting over a potato or else starving to death. Jamie, or Jim as Basie calls him, displays surprising adaptability in the face of all the desperation, but the casualties of war eventually overcome him in tragic fashion, claiming his innocence as one of their number. In many ways, it reminded me of Grave of the Fireflies from the following year by putting a struggling boy through a wartime hell no child should have to endure.
Empire of the Sun is an epic with a pitying eye on the civilian cost of war and boasts a singular star performance to deliver both the hope and the heartbreak of its story. Its 2½-hour length is a bit of a bear at times, accentuating the duration of Jamie’s trials but testing the audience’s patience as well. It’s really the only fault I can point to to justify it not being List-Worthy, and it’s hard to believe it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture or Director that year. It’s not as watchable as most of Spielberg’s filmography, but it’s one of his grander, more illustrious works.
Best line: (Basie, in the Japanese internment camp) “It’s at the beginning and end of war that we have to watch out. In between, it’s like a country club.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
2017 S.G. Liput
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