FILM (1987)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 February, 2011, 12:00am

Empire of the Sun
Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson
Director: Steven Spielberg

In the 1980s, long before Tom Cruise sprinted through the dirty laundry of Shanghai's hutongs for Mission: Impossible III, it was a mammoth task for Hollywood to film in China.

No American film had been shot in the country since the 1940s. But then Steven Spielberg took a scraggly young Welsh kid called Christian Bale and a star-studded cast that included John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson and Ben Stiller to the streets of Shanghai to film a multicultural war film about the Japanese occupation of China. Empire of the Sun, an adaptation of J.G. Ballard's 1984 novel of the same name, would put China back on Hollywood's radar just a few years before the country's economic awakening.

After a year of negotiations with the China Film Co-Production Corporation, the crew moved in for a three-week shoot at the start of 1987. Many of the Chinese extras had first-hand experience of the Japanese occupation of the city 40 years before, while members of the People's Liberation Army played Japanese soldiers. In the film, Shanghai looks by turns urbane and radiant (at the beginning), beaten and bedraggled (amid scenes of the invasion), and downtrodden and defeated (when the Japanese assume control). It is, ultimately, an unforgettable character in the movie.

Twelve-year-old Bale played Jamie Graham, a British child who gets separated from his well-to-do parents in a crush of people as the family tries to flee the city. Suddenly orphaned, the resourceful Jamie takes up with a shifty and opportunistic American ship steward called Basie (Malkovich), before the two are eventually caught and shipped off to an internment camp. At the camp, the two form an unequal but fruitful economic partnership that furnishes them both with a comparatively comfortable lifestyle in the grim conditions.

Meanwhile, through a barbed wire fence at the camp, Jamie befriends a Japanese teenager who is destined to become a kamikaze pilot - an object of fascination for the young Brit. In fact, planes and pilots serve as central metaphors throughout the film, variously representing escape, oppression and, ultimately, when an American raid frees the prisoners from the camp, liberty. Later, when Jamie's Japanese friend has himself become a pilot, he is shot dead by one of Basie's friends, severing the fraught relationship between the two protagonists for good. Not insignificantly, the end of Jamie and Basie's friendship coincides with the end of the war.

Empire of the Sun, Spielberg would later tell The New York Times, was a film about the 'death of innocence' - a journey in which Jamie, right on the cusp of puberty, goes from idyllic childhood fantasy to hard-bitten war-time reality. By the time he is finally reunited with his parents in a Shanghai orphanage at the film's end, the war has hollowed out his core.

While the film was a disappointment at the box office, it received warm notice from critics - and thanks to Bale's star turn as a kid enduring the spirit-eroding callousness of war and Spielberg's expansive imagery, Empire of the Sun has endured as a timeless epic worthy of all the big names with which it is associated.