Empire of The Sun, a TCK Movie Analysis

Christian Bale in Sweden to promote “Empire of the Sun.” Image from Wikimedia commons, provided by Towpilot.

Third-culture-kid (TCK) and cross-cultural-kid (CCK) lifestyles — and the subsequent benefits and struggles — rarely enter the media. Often, only TCKs themselves seek to tell their stories while those who have experienced a less nomadic upbringing remain unaware of this lifestyle.

Carsen Leith Porterfield hosts the “Local Beats” radio show, and he worked at “CTV,” the Rocky Mountain Collegian TV channel.

He commented on the state of reporting in the media.

“It is focused more on white, straight people and steers away from culturally diverse people,” he said.

Josh Whitaker, a film student at Chapman University, noted that the film industry is seeing a similar trend.

“There are always stories to be told about all kinds of people from all backgrounds,” he said. “The problem is that the film industry is hesitant to develop these stories likely because of fear of financial failure.”

Movies and film might be the perfect venue to feature cross-cultural themes, but these are few and far between.

Perhaps the best example is “Empire of The Sun,” the story of a CCK living in China. Directed by Steven Spielberg in 1987, the movie served as his attempt to address an entirely different concept than his previous films. The main character, Jim (Jamie), is portrayed by a 13-year-old Christian Bale, the actor who would later play Batman and star in other big hits such as “The Prestige.”

The movie is set in Shanghai in 1941 during the early stages of World War II. Jamie lives with his parents in a wealthy area of the city and attends a Catholic boys school. He is waited upon by Chinese house cleaners and nannies, and he is quite spoiled, snobby and rude. At this point in the narrative, he has no understanding of these other cultures that surround him and no appreciation for the hardship and suffering of others.

Image made available by creative commons.

All changes when the Japanese army invades the city of Shanghai, which causes mass panic and exodus from the city. Immediately separated from his parents, Jamie is left to fend for himself. Unlike some TCKs, his racial diversity is evident and impossible to hide. As a young, white and wealthy schoolchild, he is an easy target for taunting and robbing.

After being chased and teased, he runs into and immediately latches on to another English speaker. TCKs often cling to the first friends they make, and Jamie was relieved to meet Basie, an American looter. When Basie cannot seem to interest anyone in purchasing Jamie’s pristine white teeth, he gives in and allows the child to tag along.

The Japanese regime eventually captures both of them and forced them into a concentration camp.

The audience witnesses a change in Jamie’s character after he is in the camp for four years. Now referred to as Jim, he is fluent in English, Latin and Japanese. He has become a crafty tradesperson using small items to barter for meals and little trinkets that he wants.

Inside the camp, Jim has two distinct father figures. These relationships might resonate with military TCKs who often look up to other male figures besides their fathers, or become used to the culture and structure that the military provides. For Jim, the rogue and rowdy American, Basie, and the composed British doctor Rawlins provide balance for him as he grows into adulthood.

By the time the war ends, Jim has forgotten what his parents look like. He has lost his childlike whimsy (the loss of childhood is a distinct trait in many TCKs), and he has been humbled into understanding and respecting all cultures. When finally reunited with his parents, he is so distinctly not British. Their meeting is strained and unnatural.

The plot is based on the real-life experiences of author J.G. Ballard. He described the feeling of returning to Britain after such a distinctly unique and culturally shocking experience.

In March 2006, Ballard told The Guardian: “Coming to England after the war, and trying to cope with its grey, unhappy people, I hoarded my memories of Shanghai, a city that soon seemed as remote and glamorous as ancient Rome. It’s magic never faded, whereas I forgot Cambridge within five minutes of leaving that academic theme park, and never wanted to go back.”

While Spielberg’s movie does not intentionally address the issues and benefits that TCKs face, he does touch on experiencing several cultures during your formative years.

Jamie’s transformation from a snobby ignorant boy into a culturally rounded, compassionate and accepting person serves as a final reminder that a globally nomadic lifestyle can be incredibly constructive in the end.

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