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Empire of the Sun (1987)

Now considered a trial run for the more moving, horrifying and involving Schindler’s List (1993), Steven Spielberg’s drama, set in China during the Second World War, is a glossy and rather tame affair, based on JG Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel.

When the Imperial Japanese army marches into Shanghai in December 1941, the privileged upper-class life which 11-year-old Jamie Graham (Christian Bale) enjoys with his family in the city’s International Settlement comes to an end. In the ensuing turmoil, Jamie is separated from his parents.

He returns to their deserted home but is forced to venture into the city after his food runs out. Jamie attempts to turn himself in to a group of Japanese militia-men, but he is turned away.

He is then taken in by Basie (John Malkovich) – a stranded American ship’s steward and a hustler – and his partner-in-crime, Frank Demarest (Joe Pantoliano), who nicknames him “Jim”. To mollify Basie and Frank, Jamie leads them back to his neighbourhood where they can loot valuables.

At Jamie’s old house, the trio is arrested by Japanese soldiers and taken to Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center outside Shanghai for processing. Soon thereafter a truck arrives to take some internees to the Suzhou Creek Internment Camp. Basie is among those selected to go. Jamie is not, but he convinces the soldiers to take him along.

Resourceful Jim survives in the camp by running a lucrative trading network, involving even the camp’s commander, Sgt. Nagata (Masatô Ibu). Dr Rawlins (Nigel Havers), the camp’s British doctor, becomes Jim’s surrogate father and mentor.

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In the aftermath of a bombing raid, Sgt. Nagata commands that the prisoners’ hospital be obliterated, but changes course when Jim asks for forgiveness. Through the barbed wire fencing, Jim befriends a teenaged Kamikaze pilot trainee (Takatarô Kataoka).

Basie tasks Jim with setting up snare traps on the perimeter of the camp’s wire (a way to test the area for land mines as Basie is plotting to escape). When the work is completed, Basie lets Jim join him in the American barracks.

The base is suddenly attacked by a flight of USAAF P-51 Mustang fighters. Overjoyed at the sight, Jim climbs up a pagoda for a better vantage point.

The Japanese evacuate the camp, and Basie escapes during the confusion, leaving Jim behind though he had promised to take him along. During their evacuation march, many of the camp’s prisoners die from exhaustion, disease and starvation. Arriving at a football stadium near Nantao, Jim recognises his parents’ Packard among war booty looted by the Japanese.

Waking up next to the corpse of a young woman, Jim witnesses the bright flash from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki hundreds of miles to the East on 9 August 1945. He slips away from the group and wanders back to Suzhou Creek where he learns that Japan has surrendered and the war is over.

He also encounters the young Japanese kamikaze pilot trainee he befriended earlier. Basie reappears with a group of armed Americans who have arrived to loot airdropped Red Cross containers. Jim’s young friend is about to cut a mango for Jim with his katana (samurai sword) when one of the Americans – mistakenly believing Jim to be in danger – kills the Japanese youth.

Basie volunteers to help Jim locate his parents, but Jim opts to stay behind. He is located by American soldiers and brought to an orphanage, where he is finally reunited with his mother and father.

As you’d expect from Spielberg, the film has its fair share of heroic moments and scenes that depict the horror of war through the eyes of a child. But, despite the presence of such talents as John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson and stiff-upper-lip Brit Nigel Havers, this seems a rather superficial look at life under occupation.

The Lunghua detention centre set was built inside the abandoned Beckton Gas Works in East London (where Stanley Kubrick also filmed the Vietnam scenes for Full Metal Jacket in 1986). The Suzhou Creek prison camp set was built near Jerez, 80 miles northwest of Seville, in southwest Spain.

Jamie (Jim) Graham
Christian Bale
Basie
John Malkovich
Mrs Victor
Miranda Richardson
Mr Victor
Peter Gale
Dr Rawlins
Nigel Havers
Frank Demarest
Joe Pantoliano
Maxton
Leslie Phillips
Sergeant Nagata
Masato Ibu
Jim’s mother
Emily Richard
Jim’s father
Rupert Frazer
Mr Lockwood
Robert Stephens
Mr Chen
Burt Kwouk
Lt Price
Paul McGann
Dainty
Ben Stiller

Director
Steven Spielberg