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Empire of the Sun

On Dec. 7th, 1941 — the same day that Pearl Harbor was attacked — the Japanese rounded up all the westerners living in the occupied city of Shanghai and marched them into interment camps. Although war had been raging for some time in China, English and American businessmen and their families had been allowed to remain unmolested in a walled "International Quarter" under diplomatic protection. There, they had lived a very Western life of opulence with swimming pools, limousines and servants, educating their children in exclusive schools and partying at country clubs. Author J.G. Ballard grew up in this rarefied environment, and Steven Spielberg's 1987 Empire of the Sun — based on Ballard's semi-autobiographical novel — recounts Ballard's experiences as a boy coming of age in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. The film follows 11-year-old Jamie Graham (Christian Bale) after he's ripped from the arms of his parents and the upper-class English lifestyle he was born to. Lost in the stampeding crowds of people trying to flee Shanghai, Jamie wanders the streets so desperate for food that he continually tries to give himself up to Japanese soldiers. He meets up with Basie and Frank (John Malkovich, Joe Pantoliano), a pair of scavenging merchant seamen who try to sell him — but they can't find any takers because Jamie's too thin and weak. The three are soon captured and sent to a prison camp, where Jamie (now using the more grown-up name "Jim"), under the tutelage of the Fagin-like Basie, quickly becomes adept at the art of survival, learning all the scams and shortcuts he needs to survive. And Jim actually thrives in the camp environment over the course of his internment, as he passes through childhood and becomes a young man, learning very hard lessons about trust and survival.

*          *          *

Empire of the Sun is Steven Spielberg's first great "grown-up" film, surpassing both the wide-eyed wonder of his "childhood is magical" movies and the over-the-top treacle of his previous stab at mature drama, The Color Purple. Here he somehow manages to avoid his best-known flaws, neither talking down to his audience nor tugging at heartstrings like some sort of cloying puppet-master. And it's a truly beautiful film to watch — yes, Spielberg is a little obsessed with the big, glowing orb of the sun (the director's greatest weakness has always been for the painfully obvious motif), but he also offers beautiful details with Japanese Zeros at dawn, as well as the absurdity of English cathedrals and American movie posters on the streets of Shanghai. In typical Spielberg fashion, the story is very PG — keeping in mind the delicate sensibilities of his audience (and the Oscar voters) Ballard's original story has been cleaned up more than a little bit, and the true horrors of prison camp life are alluded to more than they're illustrated. But it's not much of an issue, since that's not the story Spielberg's telling anyway. Along with screenwriter Tom Stoppard, he's more interested in exploring the amazing flexibility of a child's psyche: Having never seen England, Jim has no real affinity for "sides" in the war — his passion is for planes, and he sees the Japanese pilots as heroes. For him the camp is not a prison, but his home and safe haven. Much as John Boorman explored in Hope and Glory (also from 1987), Spielberg allows that young boys can actually enjoy war, and that the human spirit is almost infinitely adaptable to any hardships it may have to endure. Christian Bale is amazing as Jim, growing in the role from spoiled rich kid to a haunted young man with a determined will. Malkovich gives an amiable, unmannered performance free of the tics and affectations that he's assumed in his more recent films. And Spielberg cast Empire with an eye to the story, not the box office — in 1987, Malkovich had just begun to make a name for himself as an "interesting," quirky actor, and Pantoliano (The Matrix, Memento) was still most recognizable as Guido the Killer Pimp from Risky Business. Other now-recognizable faces include Miranda Richardson in an unspectacular role as a sickly Brit and Ben Stiller as an American G.I. Warner's DVD release of Empire of the Sun offers a brand-new anamorphic transfer in its original 1:85:1 theatrical ratio — and it's a thing of beauty, with rich, saturated colors and a crisp, mostly flawless picture. The remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is equally impressive, with dialogue taking the forefront in astounding clarity, and John Williams' (sparingly used, believe it or not) string-heavy score coming in heady and full. Empire runs 152 minutes, which means supplements can be found on the flip-side, including the 50-minute behind-the-scenes feature The China Odyssey: Empire of the Sun, a Film by Steven Spielberg (originally released on the Laserdisc). Narrated by Martin Sheen, the short film is a genuinely interesting look at the film's production, offering historical information, newsreel footage, scenes from the location shooting, and interview snippets with J.G. Ballard. Most interesting are the scenes of Spielberg dealing with the throngs of Chinese extras, and the segment on the one-third scale, radio-controlled airplanes that were used for the air sequences. Theatrical trailer, cast-and-crew notes. Snap-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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