No, the title is not a play on words, or a sequence of letters meant to be unscrambled.
It is actually a song that I first heard – God, I wish I remember the year! – when I saw Steven Spielberg’s forgotten 1987 film Empire of the Sun.
Even a “forgotten” Spielberg film is a beast that is more well-known than most other movies, but one could be forgiven if one were, as one was aniticipating the premier of this film on December 9, 1987, thinking that it would be unforgettable.
After all, it was a movie of firsts, the first “first” being that it was the first large-scale Hollywood production to be shot in China (not all of it was shot there, but the scenes that were are easy to recognize). The film was also Spielberg’s first “serious” movie about World War II. The film had a budget of $40 million, and, as I discovered while watching the DVD, contains a truly terrific theatrical trailer.
Moreover, there was, as there is too infrequently, a sense that Spielberg would recover, and perhaps even be rewarded – as a result of something that happened two years earlier. In 1985, his The Color Purple, dismissed as a Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah portrayal of Alice Walker’s novel of the same name by some, and hailed as a masterpiece by others, launched the careers of Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg, and received eleven Oscar nominations. Spielberg won the Directors’ Guild Award (after being snubbed for a Best Director nomination).
But on Oscar night, the seemingly impossible happened. The film did not win a single award, thus tying the record for most nominations, zero wins held by The Turning Point (1977).
At this point in his career, Spielberg had yet to make two critical flops (or two films to which critics responded divisively) in a row. So I must imagine that a heightened sense of anticipation attended the release of Empire, based on J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel of his four-year experience as a Japanese POW in China that began when he was nine.
The book, which I have not read, contained elements that allows one to clearly understand why Spielberg wanted to film it. For this was the story of childhood, its innocence and its fascination with things larger than life. Spielberg was no stranger to this theme. However, the book is also about – and this is what Spielberg claims he intended to capture – what Spielberg called “the loss of innocence, the loss of childhood.” Being a POW caused Mr. Ballard to grow up too fast; surviving horrors can make us wise – perhaps too wise for our own good – beyond our years.
While Warner Bros. had high hopes for this film, they were quickly dashed as the film took a nosedive at the box office, barely recouping half of its costs. Moreover, when it came Oscar time, the movie received six nominations, but only far what most folks call “the technical categories.”
What happened, why is the movie forgotten, and is it any good?
If I had to speculate as to the answer to the first of the above three questions, I would posit that the film’s two and one half hour running time, combined with the lack of recognizable stars and Spielbergian action set pieces, rendered the movie into something of a curio. The film had the air of being a “prestige” picture – a label no one had thought to apply to a Spielberg film until that time, and it suffered because of it.
Of course, a movie can have many lives, as the invention of video has shown us, and films that have performed poorly at the theater can receive a second wind – make that a first wind, really, in the VCR or DVD player. I’m thinking of a very well-known example right now, which happily escapes my recollection. Empire of the Sun was released on laserdisc (remember that? If you do, you are probably rich, which means you probably have too much time on your hands, but even so, can’t you find something better to do than read this, or, more to the point, spend your money on buying a clue? Oh, I kid the rich!) in 1988, and on DVD in 2001. The DVD contains a 45-minute feature called “A China Odyssey: The Making of Empire of the Sun.” Despite the issuance of the movie in both of these formats, and even with the addition of the documentary material, the film is still one of the last that comes to mind when one starts reciting the Spielberg canon. Why?
The answer to this question is in many aspects the same answer to the third question I posited; namely, “Is it any good?”
My goodness, I find it harder to answer that question in the case of this film than I do with almost any other film. Indeed, it is one of the first films I viewed where my initial reaction was, “I have no idea what to make of this!”
The film is goregously shot by Allen Daviau, and John Williams’ score, when it does not insist on itself, is a soaring ride. And, in what must count for what now makes the movie “remembered” in a forgotten way (i.e. were it not for this fact, the movie might barely be remembered at all), the film was Christian Bale’s first performance. And quite an impressive performance it was, as he played Jamie Graham (look at the initials and marvel at the lack of subtlety), the child taken prisoner, the surrogate for both the author and for Spielberg himself.
The first half hour or so – and I felt this before I read a single review of the film (I would very much like to say that I saw this film in 1992 or 1993, because when I saw Little Women in 1994, I swear to God remembering saying, “Wow, Christian Bale looks all grown up! I can’t believe that was the same actor that was in……” You know) – is truly stunning and could function – indeed, essentially it plays out as – a silent film. We are introduced to Shanghai and the world of Jamie – later nicknamed Jim – with elegance and precision, as the camera first turns its glaze toward a series of coffins floating in the ocean, one of which is hit by an approaching tugboat. Next, we see, as it angrily unfurls against the breeze, the Japanese flag, and, as its visage reaches the limits of the camera’s eye, we see the city of Shangai behind it. At this point, of course, “Suo Gan” (a Welsh lullably, as it turns out – I had meant to find out what the song was for years and finally got around to doing so – forgetting to do the obvious can lead to such pleasure of retarded discovery!) is being chanted by an English schoolboy choir in Shangai (of course, the irony is that, when the movie begins in the fall of 1941, most of the children – who have been living with their parents in safety courtesy of a diplomatic understanding that allowed for a Finzi-Contini-like existence of British diplomats and well-to-do amidst the squalor that was invaded China – have never even set foot on British soil). The camera next peers down the parapets of a cathedral and brings us inside – where we see the choir as the camera slowly turns it focus to Jamie, who comes forward from his classmates to sing a little solo. This opening sequence – the camerawork, the editing, the atmopshere, the song (which is sang by him to technical perfection but is sang as if memorized rather than felt – with a strange lack of fire), the mise en scene – it is all so beautiful, simultaneously invoking the dream world – the world of lullabies – and the world of reality the latter represented by the conductor, as he gently pounds his fists on his stand as Jamie’s mind begins to drift when he emerges from his solo to join his classmates in the chorus. (Interestingly, when I first read that the song was a Welsh lullaby, I lazily thought that because Christian Bale was Welsh, the song was developed with him in mind and that he actually sang it. Neither of these things are true).
We are next taken, as Jamie is driven by chaueffer to his parents’ home (from this point forward, the movie, cinematographically and narratively, adopts his point of view) to the streets of Shangai, a world once majestic and teeming, banal and defiled (beggars line the streets as masses of people swirm in anonymity). We then are introduced, through expository dialogue, to Jamie and his parents. After the family attends a costume party, Jamie becomes separated from his parents, moments after we see the incongruous images of stiff upper-lip Brits dressed in decadent costumes tumble down flights of stairs upon hearing the call that they must be evacuated – the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor). Jamie, once separated, is able to return home, and as he sits in his home, alone, the house itself assumes the role of a character – first serving as a point of continuity and comfort and then representing the alien world of the unknown as Jim realizes he is stranded there, alone, as the water disappears from the pool. The imagery used to dramatize the isolation is so rich, so evocative, that it is able to further the story without a single line of dialogue being uttered. Eventually, Jamie ventures outside and is captured and taken to a POW camp, where he learns how to be a man, is eventually freed, and in the ambigiously memorable closing scene, is reunkited with his parents, looking at his mother with a gaze that seems to say to her, “I recognize that you are the person who is my mother, but I am not the same person and on some level I can never relate to you again.”
Glad I snuck in that plot synopsis. The first half hour, and individual sequences in the camp, are so radiant, so SPECIFIC in their ability to evoke Jamie’s plight, that the movie ultimately must qualify as being on the side of good, so to speak. However, the film contains numerous flaws – as Hal Hinson of the Washington Post said in his review, “Virtuosity has its limits” – which have, I think, resulted in its being both forgotten and perhaps, in some sense, warranting the moniker of “failed masterpiece”.
Want to hear what the faults are? I’m so proud of myself for actually setting up an essay and actually being able to draw within the lines – and with using most of the crayons! – that I think I will reward myself by keeping….. someone…. in suspense, as I will discuss these faults later.
In the meantime, though, Suo Gan….. For over ten years I have passively let this song swirl around in my head, its haunting melody firmly entrenched, calling me to remember and revisit this unique motion picture.