Yes that is Welsh, more specifically it’s the opening line to ‘Suo Gan’, a lullaby which Christian Bale’s character Jamie (or Jim) sings at two different times in the film. I’ve chosen this as my ‘iconic moment’ in Empire of the Sun for exactly that reason; it’s sung at two different times, under two entirely different set of circumstances, impacting in two very different ways. Let’s explore further…
The first time we hear Suo Gan is in Jim’s privileged prep school; he is part of a choir of young boys, singing as the lead. Jim seems disinterested, fading in and out of concentration, only remembering to sing his parts at the last minute. To him (and us) at this point, the song is just words strung together, like many of the other hymns and songs he’s sung before. I imagine he fails to see the peculiarities of learning Welsh lullabies at an ex-pat school in Shanghai. This is the point of the song though; it’s a device that detaches Jim from his surroundings. He’s a rich English boy in China; whilst war is raging around the globe he is safe and secure in his upper-middle class family, as far away from reality and the front-lines as it’s possible to be.
Not long after this first instance however, Jim’s world unravels. Separated from his parents, he is lost amid the Japanese invasion, and suddenly those years of choir practice and privilege become meaningless. At it’s heart Empire of the Sun is a coming of age film, and we see some significant changes in Jim as the story progresses. Jim moves from a material world to an ethereal one, where luxuries matter less, and qualities of person matter more. We rarely see Jim upset in his new environment, rather he seems to thrive under the pressures of internment. He doesn’t look at the people and nations involved in the war and simply pick a side based on numbers or geography, instead he quite innocently looks at the innate qualities each possess. Despite being a prisoner of war, he demonstrates an immense respect for Japanese culture, specifically their high regard for bravery and honour.
This brings us to the second instance of Suo Gan, and in my mind the iconic moment of the film. As several Japanese kamikaze pilots partake in a traditional pre-flight ritual, Jim watches on through the camp’s barbed wire fence. He salutes and starts singing, his high-pitched adolescent voice contrasting with the deep timbre of the soldiers. When I watch this scene, I’m struck by how powerful it is; it’s a simple set-up, but you can feel it touching on a lot of issues to do with moral and cultural relativism, sadly more than can be examined in this short piece.
When we first hear Suo Gan, echoing around Jim’s school chapel, we think nothing of it. It’s just another example of his high society life. It’s only the second time around that we realise the importance of the first, to act as the contrast that ultimately makes this iconic scene so powerful.
On 5th September, Warner Bros UK. launch the Iconic Moments Collection, a beautifully matching packaged set of 22 standout titles celebrating the breadth of their catalogue.