Empire of the Sun (1987)

Empire of the Sun

I’ve read J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World and in his afterword he mentions his childhood in China, which reminded me that I still hadn’t watched Empire of the Sun, which is based on his childhood experiences.

Empire of the Sun is set in Shaghai, in 1941 and tells the story of a young boy. Jim’s (Christian Bale) parents, like so many other of the rich Brits living in Shanghai, didn’t react in time to the aggressions of the Japanese. Many thought that they wouldn’t risk anything as they were not Chinese; they believed they were protected by their status as foreigners and their money. But they were wrong. When the Japanese troops finally invade, it’s too late. Most of them try to flee, leaving behind their houses and all of their possessions.  In the general chaos, Jim loses his parents and has to fend for himself. At first he returns to their beautiful mansion, but the food is soon gone and he starts roaming the streets until he meets Basie (John Malkovitch). Basie is an expat just like Jim’s parents were but he’s a very different kind. A hustler, a thief, someone who lives from hand to mouth. He sees that Jim is from a rich background and decides to look after him. Whether there is some genuine kindness or pure calculation isn’t so clear at first. What is clear is that they get along like a house on fire. Jim is a precocious, extremely intelligent and crafty kid – also terribly annoying – and they complement each other perfectly.

When they are finally arrested by the Japanese and brought to a POW camp, they survive doing what they know best, dealing and stealing, and making money out of everything. The time at the POW camp is one of great liberty for Jim. He’s soon known by everyone and while he’s an obnoxious kid, they also like him and find him very useful.

Despite of the danger and captivity Basie and Jim are doing great for themselves, help each other out, or rather profit from each other. Still, the war leaves traces and when they can finally leave the camp, they are both altered.

I loved the beginning of this film, the cinematography is amazing and the story is fascinating. Basie and Jim are larger-than-life characters, the kind you admire and despise at the same time. At least I did. Christian Bale did an amazing job at portraying Jim. What an annoying kid that was. He talks and talks endlessly and while he’s crafty, he never knows when to stop or give it a rest. Basie is ingenious and maybe, he means well at times, but mostly he’s the type of character who will always be able to make money, preferably even through selling out others and profiting from their misery.

There are a few tense moments, but overall we often get a feeling that this is less a POW camp than a summer camp. I was wondering if that was because Spielberg tried to stay true to the boy’s point of view or whether these camps for civilians were not that bad.

It’s a highly watchable movie and one I will certainly watch again, but unfortunately, the film has a lot of typically cheesy Spielberg moments, which annoyed me. I still think it’s a beautifully filmed movie and a great story. I liked it, but  didn’t love it because I hate it when director’s manipulate us. Spielberg always does that, that’s why I don’t really like Schindler’s List and even think Saving Private Ryan could have been much better than it is.

Advertisements

Children in War Movies: A List

In this post I would like to focus on war  movies in which children have leading roles and are not just supporting actors like in The Hurt Locker to name but one example.

There are many movies whose sole focus are children. They come from different countries, show different conflicts and times but they have one thing in common: they are all good, very good or outstanding. This is quite remarkable. It is as if those film directors who aim for entertainment only would shy away from showing children in war movies. All the movies listed below are very different in tone. Some are light and almost playful, like Hope and Glory, some are depressing and raw like Come and See, others have the quality of a fairytale like Pan´s Labyrinth.

I am sure my list is not exhaustive. If you know of any others, let me know. I will try and review most of them in later posts,  like I already did with Hope and Glory (see post), Welcome to Sarajevo (link to post), The Children of Huang Shi (see post) and Savior (see post). I am stating the name and the year and country in brackets. The conflict and where the war takes place follow behind. I did include a few movies with teenagers in it like The Bridge or Napola, but most of the others focus on much smaller children. I did also  include Savior as the newborn is central to the story.

I am sure you will discover many you did not know yet as I did.

The Drum (GB, 1938): India

Mrs Miniver (US 1942): WWII, British Homefront

Since You Went Away (US, 1944): WWII, American Homefront (here is my review)

Roma, Città Aperta aka Rome, Open City (Italy, 1945): WWII, Italy

Kim (US, 1950): India

Forbidden Games aka Jeux interdits (1952, France): WWII, France

The Bridge aka Die Brücke (1959, Germany): WWII, Germany

Two Women aka La ciociara (1960, Italy/France): WWII, Italy

Ivan’s Childhood aka Ivanovo detstvo (1962, Soviet Union): WWII, Russia

Hornet´s Nest (1970, USA): WWII, Italy

Lacombe Lucien (1974, France): WWII, France

The Tin Drum aka Die Blechtrommel (Germany, 1979): WWII, Germany

Hope and Glory (1987, UK): WWII, Blitz  (Here is my review)

Empire of the Sun (1987, USA) : Chinese-Japanese War WWII

Au-revoir les enfants aka Goodbye, Children (1987, France/Germany): WWII, Holocaust,France

Grave of the Fireflies aka Hotaru no haka (1988, Japan): WWII, Japan. Anime. (See my post)

Europa, Europa aka Hitlerjunge Salomon (1990 Germany/France/Poland): WWII, Germany (See my review)

Come and See aka Idi i smotri(1985, Soviet Union): WWII, Byelorussia

The Ogre aka Der Unhold (1996, France/Germany/UK): WWII, Nazi Germany

Welcome to Sarajevo (1997, USA) : Bosnia

Life is beautiful aka La vita è bella (1997, Italy): WWII, Holocaust (see post on La vita è bella)

Savior (1998, USA ): Bosnia

Silent Night (2002, USA): WWII, Germany (see my post on Silent Night)

Innocent Voices aka Voces inocentes (2004, Mexico/USA/Puerto Rico): El Salvador (see my post on Innocent Voices)

Turtles can fly aka Lakposhtha parvaz mikonand (2004, Iran/France/Iraq): Iraq

Before the Fall aka Napola (2004, Germany): WWII, Germany (see my review of NaPola)

Pan´s Labyrinth aka El laberinto del fauno (2006, Spain): WWII Franco´s Spain

Under the Bombs aka Sous les Bombes (2007, France/Lebanon): 2006, Lebanon (see my review of Under the Bombs)

Miracle at St. Anna (2008, US): WWII, Italy (here is my review)

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008, UK/USA): WWII, Holocaust (see my review)

Escape from Huang Shi aka The Children of Huang Shi (2008, Australia, China, Germany, USA): Japanese occupation of China

Winter in Wartime aka Oorlogswinter (2008, Netherlans, Belgium): WWII, occupied Hollad in Winter, 1945 (here is the link to my post)

The Fortress of War aka Brestskaya krepost (2010, Russia): WWII, Russia 1941. Germans attack the Brest Fortress (here is the link to my post).

The Round-Up – La Rafle (2010, FR/GE/HU): WWII, Paris, the round-up of 13000 Jews in the Vel d’Hiv (here is my review)

This list is being updated regularly.

Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) or What would I have done?

I´m not normally sitting there watching a movie and asking myself constantly: What would I have done but I did while watching this film. Michael Winterbottom´s movie Welcome to Sarajevo is one of the very highly acclaimed war movies. It is based on a true story, Michael Henderson´s account of his stay as a war reporter in Sarajevo. Sure, war and journalism is a theme that is likely to be explored and Winterbottom is of course not the only filmmaker to have done so (The Killing Fields, We Were Soldiers, Full Metal Jacket, Generation Kill, Das Boot to name but a few,  deal with it to some extent). His second theme, war and children, has also been the center of many movies (Hope and Glory, Empire of the SunLa vita è bella aka Life is beautiful ). His major theme however is involvement. How much should we get involved? And in this specific context: Can a reporter only watch and stay outside?

Still somehow I didn´t like this much praised work and was glad when reading a comment on imbd from a person who lived through the siege of Sarajevo that he did not really like it since he found the setting unrealistic or rather the filmmakers had taken too many liberties with the setting. Funny enough that is exactly what I sensed and it spoiled a lot for me.

Winterbottom filmed shortly after the war, on site. We see a lot of destroyed buildings.  So much destruction is utterly depressing. Journalists live in abandoned hotels, meet in the evening in bars and discuss the days events and filming. Some pictures are really awful and the journalists  voyeuristic approaching of wounded, dead and dying people is shown in all its tastelessness. Intrusion without involvement.

The British reporter Michael Henderson (Stephane Dillane convincingly disenchanted and thoughtful) and the American Flynn (Woody Harrelson a bit of a sicko role as usual) were two of those vulture like creatures running to every scene whenever they heard a gunshot, firing, a bomb or screams. While Flynn appreciates the adventure quality of it all, Michael gets more and more weary. When they discover an orphanage that is located in one of the most dangerous zones of the city and he realises, even when he films the most realistic documentaries, the world just doesn´t give a damn, he´s had it. All through the movie we see original footage of the world´s then presidents. What they say combined with what we see would make great material for war satire.

Seeing those children, little babies, abandoned toddlers and older children Michael knows he can´t stay out of all of this. He wants to help and he does help. The journey he undertakes together with an American aid worker (Marisa Tomei – she´s such an endearing actress too bad her role is much too short) is the best part of the movie. Together with a few children and especially one girl whom Michael has promised a better life in England the escape the besieged city and try to get to Italy or England respectively. It´s an extremely dangerous and hazardous journey and you wish the whole time that they will make it. People like Michael truly make a difference.

Oh, by the way, what would you have done?