I should probably go and see if the DVD of Donnie Darko
is still available at my local video store; something tell's me it's not...
Last night I finally watched Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun
SPOILERS, the second film that I have seen in as many days dealing with an adolescent boys experiences during WWII (though given the films's PG-13 rating, it wasn't as horrifying as Come and See
). I will have to agree that it is among the most accomplished of Spielberg's films, even if I don't necessarily think of it as his best (I could reserve that spot for Jaws
, Close Encounters of a Third Kind
, or Raiders of the Lost Ark
), but it's up there. You get Spielberg's typical technical mastery, but the unusual complex characterizations and lack of an uplifting ending (the fact that Jim is not even looking for his parents, and they almost miss him, Jim's remote, emotionless expression and thousand-yard stare, the mix of exhaustion and shock; his lack of response to his mother's embrace; his father looking about nervously; really no swelling music, only the repeated musical motif of "Suo Gan"; since this is autobiographical, I think I can kind of understand how JG Ballard could write Crash
; actually, this is perhaps the most disturbing Child-Parent reunion this side of AI: Artificial Intelligence
The early scenes, before the Japanese invasion of Shanghai were very interesting, the Euro-American disregard for the Chinese, the imperialistic hubris and overconfidence couched on casual racism and ignorance (the one partygoer who baits Mr. Chen with racist epithets; Jim's expectations of his servants's unquestioning obedience, then he get's his comeuppance when his Amah slaps him), the almost willful ignorance of the plight of the Chinese refugees (even if Jim's dad appear more enlightened than the other whites). I think the scenes where the Europeans, in costume for a party, are forced to drive their shiny new cars through throngs of poor Chinese refugees desperate to flee the Japanese occuppation. Jim's stumbling onto the Japanese encampment is also a very tense scene; it's ominous to watch the Japanese soldiers stand atop the embankment in extreme long-shot, watching the scared Englishmen, and waiting. Of course, the invasion itself is also well orchestrated.
Jim is an interesting character. A smart rich kid, typically arrogant, he get's humbled in spades, but he is also resourceful and fearless (a quick example how he talks his way onto the Japanese truck to Suchow, and how he even hits the Japanese driver for disagreeing with his directions), a quick understudy to the Americans, who are portrayed, in general, as opportunistic, pragmatic, and cynical (with Pacie being the least upright substitute father in Spielberg's oeuvre); but I guess that is better than the British who try to keep a stiff upper-lip and keep a deluded sense of normalcy (playing golf?). Jim's fascination with the Japanese is another interesting trait, his interest in aviation giving him an almost traitorous respect for the Japanese pilots (the most Spielbergian moment is when Jamie is fondling the Zero and salutes the Japanese pilots (but then he seems to switch allegiance to the Americans and their P-51s); another is when he sings "Suo Gan" again to commemorate the kamikaze pilots), though he seems disconnected from the same Japanese brutality in the POW camp. We never get to see much of the Japanese other than Sgt. Nagata, who seems to be a run through for Goeth, but with a little more heart, Nagata is kind to the teenager who befriends Jim through their love of airplanes (you could see their roles being reversed in another situation) and even cries at one point at the sacrifice of the young pilots in suicide missions. I actually felt sorry for the Japanese kid who befriends Jim, he is so dissapointed when his Zero's engine sputters to a halt, not out of some devotion to the Emperor, but because he this will probably be his only chance to fly. Then he is mistakenly killed by the Americans, who have an almost casual disregard for Jim at this point, even though Jim's disappointment in Pacie is palpable.
The final scenes at the end of the war, perhaps approach the closest to the surreal in any Spielberg movie. The stadium full of European booty, the witnessing of the A-bomb and Jim's belief that it is the soul of Mrs. Victor going to heaven, and the food dropping from the sky, Jim's surrender to the expressionless American forces after having his run of the empty camp. If not the surreal, atleast the absurd. That the film ends with a shot of Jim's suitcase, full of his childhood toys and wartime booty, is shown bobbing in Shanghai bay, echoing the coffins in the beginning, is an apt summation of the loss of childhood innocence through war. Again, a message akin to Come and See