Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Life, Death, Childhood and War...with a little China thrown in, too
Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard (reviewed)
Amazon.com link

Empire of the Sun
, film by Steven Spielberg (reviewed)
IMDB link


I'm not sure what the first "adult" movie I ever went to with my parents was. For that matter, I suppose it depends on the definition of an "adult" movie in the first place. Personally, I discount any science fiction movie from being in that catagory - if it's SF/F...it isn't "adult" (not that adults can't enjoy those movies, or shouldn't go...that's not what I'm saying). No...by adult, I mean a movie with adult themes. That was about reality, or history, or something more than pure fantasy and speculation. A movie that was not made so that children could enjoy it. And I don't mean my first Rated-R movie...I actually KNOW what that one was ("Total Recall," which I saw at the Glendale, on a rainy summer afternoon in 1990).

Like I said...I can't remember what my first adult movie was. But I can name the first adult movie that I remember seeing...whether or not it was actually the first...who knows. But the first adult movie I saw and came away mesmerized by...enough so that it left an impression on me that has lasted for decades...was Steven Spielberg's movie Empire of the Sun. I saw it in the dead of winter with my father (and...I think...my step-mother) at the Fox theatre near White Lakes Mall off Topeka Blvd. in Topeka, KS. White Lakes Mall doesn't exist anymore...or rather, it does, but it's just offices and whatnot. I think the Fox theatre has closed down as well, for that matter. Or at least, I think it was the Fox theatre...things get hazy. But I do remember it was cold. Really cold. It was December 1987 and in Kansas...December is always cold.

Outside, after the film, I couldn't stop talking about it. I think part of my captivation was that I was going through that phase that many young boys go through...fascinated with airplanes and aviation...and World War 2 aviation in particular. Girls go through ponies and unicorns and ballet and whatnot. Boys go through dinosaurs and trains and airplanes and WW2 (and yes...those are stereotypes and not necessarily universal). Anyway...here was a movie that, for a kid who was almost 14 years old, had everything! It had a main character who was my own age. It had WW2. And airplanes. Just about everything a 14 year old boy would love.

What I wasn't expecting was to be so terribly moved by it. I've seen the movie many times since then and I still find it an incredibly moving experience. It's one of my favorite movies and I'll argue until I'm hoarse that it's Spielberg's "forgotten classic" - too often confused with "The Last Emperor," which came out around the same time and covers some of the same ground. It is a tale about the loss of childhood and innocence. Of growing up and learning what being an adult is...and what the world is really like. Of China and it's misery under the brutal occupation of the Japanese. Of the terrible things we do to survive. And the triumph and tragedy of becoming an adult.

Now, 20 years after it was published, I have finally managed to read JG Ballard's novel, which the film is based on. It took awhile. There are always other books to read and always will be. With Empire of the Sun, I also had a hard time getting my hands on a copy. It had floated out of print here in the States for awhile - Ballard's other novels have always been more popular (I should note...I'm a big fan of Ballard's fiction). I also use the word novel loosely here. Ballard admits that this is an autobiographical novel...that the events are based on events that happened to him. And like the best Ballard fiction...at times you question what is real and what is unreal. But that's secondary to the story here.

In a nutshell, Empire of the Sun tell the story of Jaime/Jim, a spoiled rich child of British parents living in Shanghai's International Settlement in the years before WW2 broke out in the Pacific. You see very little of that life...only enough to get a picture. Within a few chapters, the war has broken out and Jaime (later called Jim) and his life change forever. The Japanese confiscate everything, starting with the "order" that everyone is used to. Jim quickly loses his parents and finds himself alone in Shanghai and unable to "surrender" to the Japanese. He goes through various minor adventures before falling in with two American merchant sailors (Frank and Basie)...only to end up interred with all the other foreign nationals.

And then the book flashes forward to 1945 and the closing months of the war. The internment camp is practically the only life he knows. Like other survivors, he does not know how to operate in the real world once the security of the camp is gone and the war is over (indeed...he keeps heading back to the camp, drawn by it's security and his sense of fitting in there - over the last third of the book, Jim continually leaves and returns to the internment camp, sometimes idly hoping that WW3 is going to break out and the guards will return). Meanwhile, there is his "friendship" (if you can call it that) with the American, Basie. Malkovich (in the film) nailed this part...it was just about perfect from the description in the novel. A man who thinks only of himself, who is a constant survivor, and who provides the role of surrogate mother and father to Jim...in both good and bad ways.

This was a tremendous novel, filled with beautiful and haunting evocations of China and the hard life of internees (and worse for Chinese peasants). It is written with poetry and beauty, and apparently took Ballard 40 years before he could write it. The film is remarkably faithful to the novel...though there are some differences (particularly in the last quarter of the novel). But both begin and end with the same images - coffins floating on the Yangtze river in Shanghai. At the end of the novel/film, there is a child's coffin floating among them (in the film, it's Jim's discarded suitcase...in the novel, it is a child's coffin...but when Jim discard's the suitcase, he is reminded of a child's coffin). The novel/film have come full circle. And Jim will never be the same.

Loved it. Both come highly recommended by me. Worth checking out.

Last note...apparently, Ballard published his thoughts on the anniversary of the novel/film in the Observer over the weekend. The weekend that I read the novel for the first time. How's that for a coincidence, eh?

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