90. Empire of the Sun - The Part-Time Critic

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

90. Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun (1987)
Directed by Steven Spielberg

The first Steven Spielberg film to make the list is also my favorite film when it comes to the loss of childhood and the loss of innocence. While the movie as a whole has some serious flaws, Empire of the Sun contains some of Spielberg’s best moments. Its an emotional film; one that often brings tears to my eyes and requires me to spend some serious time reflecting on the events of the film.

Empire of the Sun follows young Englishman Jim Graham (Christian Bale) as he is estranged from his wealthy family when the Japanese invaded Shanghai, China the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked. After surviving on the streets of Shanghai for a couple of days, Jim finds himself trying to survive and adjust to life in a Japanese concentration camp.

What makes this interesting story even better is Spielberg’s decision to keep the film in Jim’s perspective. By telling the story completely through a child’s perspective, Spielberg is able to bypass a more pessimistic or cynical view that an adult may have. Instead the concentration camp is a place of awe, when the Japanese planes fly in to the nearby Japanese airbase. It’s a place of ingenuity, when Jim begins to use his smarts to trade for items that he wants. It’s also a place where he witnesses sex, death, betrayal, and even an atom bomb for the first time.

While it would be hard to point out the moment where Jim ‘loses’ his childhood, there is an undeniably cumulative effect to the story that Jim’s loss is indisputable by the end. I am literally at a lost to describe the effect the film has on me, so I'm going to leave you with these few words.

I’ve posted two clips below, and the first scene shows young Jim singing ‘Suo Gan’. By the end of the film, Jim has learned so much about the world, so much about evil, and survival, that this song that sounds so innocent and sweet has now become ironic. The second clip is from the end of the film and it might be a little spoilerish, so if you plan on watching the film, then I would stay away from it. It depicts the grown up Jim wonderfully and always evokes a reaction from me. I’ll end with the translation of ‘Suo Gan’, the celtic song that Jim sings in the first clip and is replayed in the second one. Notice how these words are lovely as a lullaby, but as one begins to learn the ways of the world, they become ironic and a milestone of times gone by.

Sleep my baby, at my breast,
’Tis a mother’s arms round you.
Make yourself a snug, warm nest.
Feel my love forever new.
Harm will not meet you in sleep,
Hurt will always pass you by.
Child beloved, always you’ll keep,
In sleep gentle, mother’s breast nigh.
Sleep in peace tonight, sleep,
O sleep gently, what a sight.
A smile I see in slumber deep,
What visions make your face bright?
Are the angels above smiling,
At you in your peaceful rest?
Are you beaming back while in
Peaceful slumber on mother’s breast?
Do not fear the sound, it’s a breeze
Brushing leaves against the door.
Do not dread the murmuring seas,
Lonely waves washing the shore.
Sleep child mine, there’s nothing here,
While in slumber at my breast,
Angels smiling, have no fear,
Holy angels guard your rest.

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