The Shanghai International Settlement in China’s Shanghai city was established after the first opium war (1839-1842) in which the Qing dynasty of China was defeated by British Empire. By 1863 Shanghai Municipal Council came under rule of an arrangement of foreign powers consisting of America, British & France. The settlement came to an end in December 1941 when Japanese captured the city. In the intermediate hundred years, the city was cosmopolitan and served as a major trading port in the region and multinational businesses thrived there.
This is the Shanghai that I saw today in the film “Empire of the Sun (1987)“. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the story is based on a novel of the same name by British writer J.G.Ballard who was born in Shanghai International Settlement. It’s about a young British boy from an aristocratic family whose life turns upside down overnight when he loses his parents and the city he grew up going in flames as Japanese army takes over the city. The next two years, the young boy Jamie, lives as a prisoner of war in a Japanese war camp during World War II. Christian Bale who has played Jamie brings the character to life, the film rests entirely on this (then) 12 year old shoulder and young Bale has carried it effortlessly.
Jamie after losing his mother in the crowd of people who are trying to leave the city through ferry, finds his way back to his mansion which is deserted, none of the many servants he had are to be seen. The maid who was Jamie’s nanny enters the house with a helper to steal whatever she could from the house, when Jamie asks her to help him, all he gets was a slap on face – in that one slap we could feel the trapped anger of Chinese living in Shanghai had buried in them for years towards their British masters. After few days, Jamie meets an American con-man Basie who takes Jamie to a Chinese trader who looks into the young boy’s mouth to find any Gold teeth of value. Later Japanese army arrests everyone including Jamie, as a young boy Jamie quickly settles down to his life as prisoner in the camp, through his services he earns the trust of both the Japanese masters and his fellow prisoners, he has become a master of barter trade. Even in the prison camp we see how some people like Basie are able to establish a power base, Jamie through his adventures gets close to Basie. As the news of WW II ending reaches the camp, we see the bravery of patriotic Japanese Pilots who are given an elaborate ceremony before being sent on what’s a suicide mission. As Japanese abandon the camp, the prisoners are left with no one to feed them with American soldiers are no were in sight to rescue them, they keep walking for days. There in one football stadium they see hundreds and thousands of confiscated valuables including the Rolls Royce car of Jamie’s family, but there is no food to eat. Many having survived for years in the camp as prisoners, now die out of starvation, what a tragedy!. Finally American soldiers rescue them, Jamie goes to an orphanage where he gets united with his parents. Many such scenes in the film leave a lasting impact on the viewer.
A must watch war time story of 20th Century!