Friday, December 30, 2011

Film Review: Empire of the sun

The film 'Empire of the sun' is one of my favourite films ever. Over the years I have watched it over and over again.

However, I watched it again recently, and suddenly, I saw it differently. I saw the same old film but with new eyes.

It is the autobiographical story of British writer JG Ballad which recounts his experiences as a young British choirboy caught up in World War II in the Far East. Jamie Graham, the young boy, born and bred in China lives a life of privilege typical of westerners abroad, of that era. Following the Pearl Habour attack, the Japanese invade China. Jamie's world is turned upside down, and in the ensuing chaos somehow gets separated from his parents and has to fend for himself until he is reunited with them at the end of the war.

The film chronicles his adventures along the way and his rite of passage into manhood.
From spoiled dentally-indulged warplane-mad choirboy (Jamie's rendition of the Welsh lullaby 'Suo Gan' is a running musical theme throughout the film) to a toughened-up traumatised survivor, Jamie 'sees it all' during the hardships of war.

He runs into two Americans named Frank and Baisie who take him under their wing and shape his journey into manhood. Baisie (an alpha if ever there was one!) especially, teaches Jamie (who he renames 'Jim') what it is to be a man.

Whilst I love the process of the initiation of Jim into manhood, I could not help but notice little gems of male-female interaction which have helped shape my understanding of the different but complimentary traits which men and women possess and which should be celebrated.
It is of note that the film is set in a time-period where men were still 'men' and women were still 'women'.
I wonder how differently things could have turned out if this film had been set in today's world?

Example 1: Women beautify, men provide
From 04:15, we see Jamie's mother playing the piano while Jamie is outside talking to his father about the war, and luck.
At 05:23 his father replies, in response to Jamie's comment, 'We are awfully lucky, aren't we, living here and having everything'  with "The funny thing is, the harder I work, the luckier we get."

I somehow got the impression that Jamie's father did not really intend that comment as a reproach to Jamie at all. It is a wistful remark at no-one in particular.
He had done his job well. He was providing abundantly for his piano-playing wife and his son. The more he worked, the more they got. End of story. No fuss.

This family was so well-off that one could almost say that aside from giving birth to Jamie, Jamie's mother was no longer particularly useful. (OK, I am being absurdly obtuse here purely for effect). There were servants to perform every task, afterall.

But no. She was the one creating beautiful piano music in the background. Her domain may be grand beacuse of her husband's hard work, but it is also made beautiful by her.
Essential, if Jamie's father was to continue to work harder without a fuss.

Example 2: Women are emotional, men are rational
From 03:40 onwards, one can see Jamie's mother is clearly getting flustered by the commotion going on around her. She loses her temper when Jamie wouldn't sit still, because he is adding to her agitation. Jamie's father is in full protection mode here. See how he calms her down without a word.

There are few benefits of feminism, to both men and women. However, many women have achieved a state of reduced display of excessive emotionality purely because it is not well tolerated in certain environments, such as at work. It is arguably a good thing.
It is however a distinct feature of the female nature to act the way Jamie's mother does in this clip.
In this particular example, it does not serve a useful purpose, but there are times when it does.

Example 3: Women sometimes need protection from themselves
That same rationality which allows Jamie's father to protect his family in a dangerous period of their lives can also literally save their lives.
In this clip (08:37), a different woman implores her husband to tell the Japanese soldiers 'who we are' in the vain hope that somehow, these guys, who in all likelihood did not even speak english would somehow exempt this couple from whatever horror they were about to unleash on them and everybody else.
The man rightly 'got it' that so much as speaking up could get him and his wife killed in an instant.

Female intuition is a great gift. I don't always possess it, but when I have it, it works wonders for me.
But in certain cases, a woman's intuition can be superseded by a man's common sense.

Example 4: Just how important is 'respect' to a man?
Jamie is certainly taken through his paces en route to becoming a man.
At one point it becomes clear that he is now too old to stay with the Victors. He is now in puberty and is beginning to spy on the couple at night.
But will he simply get a transfer to the American mens' dorm? Oh no, not so simple.
First he has to prove that he is 'worthy'. In a cruel suicide mission hashed out by Baisie and co, Jamie is tasked with setting up pheasant traps at the edge of the camp in order for Jamie to earn a place with the other men. With a mighty stroke of good fortune, Jamie passes this test in flying colours.

He mistakenly believes that in so doing, he has also earned the right to be included in Baisie's eventual escape plan.
Baisie does escape. But without keeping his promise to Jamie to keep him in the loop.

After the war, Baisie comes back for Jamie. But by this time, Jamie has become a man without Baisie there holding his hand. When Baisie attempts to sugarcoat his way back into his good books, just look at how Jamie reacts.
That look at 03:37 says: 'Get your hands off me. I am a man now, not a boy anymore. As a boy, I worshipped the ground you walked on. Now, you are just another guy. I will treat you as such'.
Some might say that Jamie's reaction is more to do with the fact that Baisie just killed his Japanese boyhood friend, a friend who had previously saved his life.
I am not so sure. I really do believe his reaction is simply to do with his perception of a lack of respect by Baisie.
We women have our own version of this. It is never quite like this though.
Just different.

Example 5: Women are nurturers, men are onlookers
In the final scene, Jamie is finally reunited with his parents. He has been through hunger, murder, misery, mental instability, disease and pain.

He does not even look like the same Jamie we see at the beginning of the film.
His mother spots him.

Jamie really needs the feminine in his life right now. He has spent some rough months with men. He himself is now a man.
When he finally re-encounters his parents he does not even see his father.

I think this is one thing a woman simply cannot lose. It is the last bastion of femininity. Not even 40+ years of feminism has been able to wrench this away from women.
Sometimes it can be very well concealed. But when the occasion calls for it, I don't know many women who would be unable to do this.

(From 08:05 in the last clip)

Long live the differences between men and women.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Following the Pearl Habour attack, the Japanese invade China."
Just to clarify and FYI: Japanese invaded China in 1937. Almost 4 years before the bombing of Pearl Harbour.