Plot: A young English boy struggles to survive under Japanese occupation during World War II – Empire of the Sun
Director: Steven Spielberg
If you liked: 1917, Dunkirk, Master and Commander
The first time I saw this film I was only a child, but I remember being blown away by both the cinematography and the acting of the young Christian Bale, who plays an eight-year-old boy who during the Japanese attack on Shanghai during World War II becomes separated from his parents and over the course of several years survived in different POW camps until the end of the war.
Bale’s portrayal of a somewhat shell-shocked youth was in my mind the reason for the film’s success and one of the main reasons to revisit it. He provided the audience with a nuanced and anchored focal point to follow through this alien and everchanging landscape. With Malkovich acting as the more world-weary counterpoint to the sometimes hyperactive child.
As mentioned before, the cinematography in Empire of the Sun was and still remains stunning, with numerous scenes throughout that lives long in the memory, such as the sorts of the Gone With the Wind poster during the harrowing escape from Shanghai, the one where Jim comes across a fallen Zero plane before walking into a group of soldiers, the scene where Jim sings as a group of Japanese pilots prepare for a kamikaze mission and my personal favourite when the residents of the camp come across the abandoned spoils of war, all of which draw different emotions from the audience at exactly the right time.
This is clearly one of Spielberg’s best-directed ‘serious films’, except maybe for Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan and it’s such a shame this film doesn’t get mentioned as much as his other movies. It’s also a bit of a surprise that this film didn’t do better at the Oscars.