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The idyllic childhood of a young English schoolboy, Jamie Graham living with his rich parents in a luxurious Shanghai suburb comes to an abrupt end in 1941 when the Japanese invade. He is separated from his parents, who are evacuated. He spends some time living in his deserted house, living on the remnants of packaged food. He ventures into Shanghai and finds it bustling with Japanese troops who ignore his attempts at surrender. Eventually he falls in with an American, Basie (Malkovich), who calls him Jim, and when they are captured Jim uses great ingenuity to stay with Basie. They are taken to Soochow Creek Internment Camp where they are put to work constructing a runway for the Japanese air force. In one dreamlike sequence, Jim wanders away from the group and finds several Japanese Zeros fighter planes and their proud pilots.

The story then jumps ahead to 1945, a few months before the end of the Pacific Campaign of the war. Jim is now about 13 or 14 years old and has eked out a good living, despite the poor conditions of the camp. He has an extensive trading network, involving even the campís commanding officer, Sergeant Nagata. He is being schooled by the campís British doctor, Dr. Rawlins, who has a difficult time teaching Jim humility. Through the barbwired fence, Jim "befriends" a Japanese teenager who also dreams of becoming a pilot. Jim still idolized Basie and visits him in the American menís barracks. He is attracted to the Americans, whose relaxed good nature contrasts starkly with their dull British counterparts. He talks of airplanes with them and learns that the North American P-51 fighter is the "Cadillac of the sky." Jim hopes to move into the American menís barracks. Jim later rescues Dr. Rawlins from a beating by Sgt. Nagata, by delivering a humble speech to the sergeant in Japanese. The doctor gives Jim a pair of golf shoes as a reward. Jim seeks to Basie when Basie charges him with setting snare traps outside the wire of the camp to catch wild pheasants that Basie claims have been roosting there. Jim creeps into the marsh undetected, but the golf shoes he left behind are discovered by Nagata, who tromps into the marsh to find the owner. Just as Nagata is about to find Jim, he is distracted by the Japanese boy from the air base on the other side of the wire, and Jim escapes detection, and as a reward Basie allows him to move into the American barracks next to Basie. Meanwhile, Basie has been plotting to escape the camp. Basieís callous private reason for sending Jim into the marsh had been to test the area for mines. Nagata makes an unexpected visit to Basieís corner of the barracks and finds some soap that Jim had earlier stolen. Basie is beaten, and spends several days in the infirmary. The other men steal Basie's possessions and Jim leaves the American men's barracks in shame.

One morning at dawn, Jim witnesses a kamikaze ritual of three Japanese pilots at the air base. Overcome with emotion at the solemnity of the ceremony, he begins to sing the same Welsh hymn ("Suo G‚n") he sang as a choir boy in Shanghai. As the pilots take off on their suicide mission, the base is suddendly attacked by the mighty P-51 Mustangs Jim has heard of. He runs to the roof of a building, where he sees one of the pilots wave at him. Excited, he begins to cheer them on. The base is heavily damaged in a matter of minutes. Dr Rawlins finds Jim on the roof, oblivious to the danger of the bombs. Jim turns to the doctor and starts talking to him in a highly emotional and excited state that verges on hysteria. The event seems to have an impact on Jim that brings about a type of mental breakdown. Rawlins sharply brings Jim back to reality by telling him ďnot to think so much.Ē The Japanese decide to evacuate the camp. Running to tell Basie the news, Jim is devastated to find that Basie has already escaped with another American, Dainty (Ben Stiller in film debut). Meanwhile, the last remaining Zero fails to start and take off, the improvised pilot being the friendly Japanese teenager, who breaks down in tears, ashamed. The camp's population begins a grueling march to Nantow where they are told there will be food. Many die along the way, including Mrs. Victor, a British woman who was Jim's "neighbour" at Suzhou. As Jim sits with her body among the war spoils stored in Nantow Stadium by the Japanese, Jim sees a bright light in the sky to the East. He believes it to be Mrs. Victor's soul floating to Heaven but finds out later, through a radio broadcast, that it was the flash from one of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, hundreds of miles away. Christian Bale and Steven Spielberg discussing a scene during production of Empire of the Sun.Starving and weak, Jim trudges back to the camp at Soochow. Making his way through rice paddies, he notices cylindrical objects attached to parachutes falling from the sky. They contain Red Cross relief packages and food items. Jim fills a parachute with supplies and arrives at the camp. He finds the same young Japanese boy he knew from his internment deliriously and angrily slashing at the plants in the marsh with his katana. The boy calms down and offers Jim a mango and begins to cut it with his sword. He is shot dead by one of Basieís companions. Jim is furious and throws the man who shot his friend into the marsh and begins to beat him. Basie drags him off and promises to take him back to Shanghai and find his parents. Jim refuses the offer and stays behind. Jim is found by a unit of American soldiers. He is sent back to Shanghai and housed with other children who have lost their parents. Jim, obviously more scarred by his experiences during the war than the other kids, doesnít recognize his parents when they arrive at the home and they scarcely recognize him. The paralysis is broken when his mother finds him in the crowd. Jim collapses into his motherís arms, the nightmare having ended.

Starring ... Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Nigel Havers

Director: Steven Spielberg

Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Steven Spielberg

Year Released - Dec. 1987

Length - 154 minutes

Music Composer: John Williams

Movie Distributed by Warner Brothers

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