on November 28, 2004
Usually people love or hate this movie, indeed is impossible not to be hit by `Empire of the Sun' in one sense or in another. Personally I think that it's a unique movie and in its way a masterpiece, but not easy to understand. Indeed to understand well the movie it's good to read the book `Empire of the Sun' by J. Ballard ( one of the most important and controversial writers of our age ). In the book J.Ballard recall as a semi-autobiographic story his early years in Shanghai ( China ) when, after Pearl Harbour at the age of eleven, he was imprisoned by the Japanese in a concentration camp outside Shanghai for three long years. It's not a common story, Ballard recall his memories and tell what he saw as a child with the perspective of a child, it's a psychological trip and in this sense it's a true story. This is the first thing that I want to point out, for all it's strangeness and absurdity this is a true story. The book and the movie tell what really happened in the mind of Jim ( James Ballard ) during those years. As the book does, also in the movie, things and facts are distorted by the point if view of a child with a lot of imagination. A strange child intrigued by the loneliness and sadness of the Japanese. The movie doesn't procede with an objective representation of reality, what you see is what Jim see, or better, his hallucinations, the reflex of reality in his mind. The Movie is full of these hallucinations and symbols. The first is the `City of clowns' . The rich British living isolated in the International settlement of Shanghai, surrounded by some million of poor chinese coolie fighting to survive. Jim feels that they are out of place and strange as clowns in the eyes of the Chinese. Then there is the abandoned house, where Jim live alone like a ghost for some time. Footprints in the talc is all what remain from his disappeared parents. Slowly his previous secure world recede from him like the water recede in the pool in his garden. At first Jim's growing survival instinct is jammed by the moral restraints of his education. But soon, when he meet Basie, he learned what he has to do to survive. Basie is not a character, he is a ghost creature, an mirror of Jim's own dark side: the ability to do everything to survive without suffering any moral consequences. In the movie this is well represented when we see Basie and Jim wandering the detection center like vultures, but the book is more explicit in this point. When Jim arrives in the camp, where he will stay for three years, he is already a `survivor' like Basie, and find easy to adapt to the camp's life, while the adult British live like ghost with their mind immersed in their memory of England ( like the Victors ). He become what they call `the war child' and they despise him because he has learned to enjoy the camp. In some interviews Mr. Ballard told that this was exactly what was his feeling with camp. It's strange, but not so strange if you think that Jim was born in Shanghai and never went to England. Soon all what remain to him from his early years is a faded image of his parents and the sad song he used to sing as a choir boy. After years of imprisonment the only world he knows is the camp and its simple rules, his heroes become the Japanese pilots of the nearby base. They are his enemies, but they represent the impossible dream of escaping the misery of his life. Again what we see is not a real representation of Japanese pilots, what we see in the movie is the dream like image of the Japanese pilots in Jim's mind, an idealized representation of the solitary and brave men he admires , dreaming to be one of them. With this view you understand why are wrong those people that say in the movie there is lack of reality, this is not the pont. Many also find absurd that Jim, in a clandestine way, thinks that it's better that the Japanese win the war so that the camp can go on. But J. Ballard himself told this was what really happened to his mind. After years of imprisonment the only world that existed in his mind was the camp, and the Japanese were the people that bring the food in the camp, without Japanese there will be no food...it's absurd but true. Ballard himself told that the most difficult thing for him was not going in the camp, but was going out of the camp and facing the reality of the world outside. I think that no other story like this shows how absurd can be the war, especially for a child. Many criticize the absurdity of some situations in the movie, but this instead it's the heart of the story. All what happens around Jim and in his mind is so absurd, but, in same time, it's true as the final hallucination: the flash of the Atom bomb. I think that it was very difficult to transfer a so deep and dark book in a satisfactory movie, but Spielberg did a very good job with the story and with the young actor. For me, this is one of the best movies I ever saw, but it's not a movie for everyone. If, after watching the movie, you feel a deep sadness and you are willing to watch it again, as it happens to me, then you entered in the spirit of the movie.