Friday, 3 September 2010

JG Ballard and Shanghai Jim

In 1946 JG Ballard left Shanghai, the city he was born and raised in for the first 15 years of his life. His final 3 years in Shanghai, Ballard spent interned in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center, a concentration camp under the control of the Imperial Japanese Army. For the 1991 BBC documentary Shanghai Jim, Ballard returned to the city of his childhood, for the first time in over 45 years.

Shanghai Jim is a fascinating and invaluable documentary on one of the great visionary writers and thinkers of the 20th century. Ballard wrote about his experiences of life under Japanese occupation in his 1984 novel Empire of the Sun and the semi-fictionalized sequel The Kindness of Women (1991), and here elaborates further on his life in Shanghai, and life under the Japanese.
In a strange way I quite enjoyed my life here because I had so much freedom, and I was part of this very large nuclear family of 2000 people. We got on very friendly terms with (the Japanese)... There was a certain sort of protocol for dealing with the Japanese - you never provoked them in any way.
As a travel companion, the 61-year old Ballard is gracious and candid, revisiting the house on Amherst Avenue before his internment, and his return to the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center (which Ballard darkly describes as his "real" home). Ballard discusses his life in England after leaving Shanghai, his interest in science fiction literature as a commentary on contemporary living (and how his experiences of Shanghai life fed into his work), his relocation to the London suburb of Shepperton and the sudden death of his wife in 1964 (leaving him with two daughters to raise). Riveting stuff.

The film makers use the device of fictionalized Ballard appearing in situations from his books - there's a particularly striking sequence where a young Ballard is seen dissecting a cadaver accompanied by a reading from The Kindness of Women describing the strange eroticism of probing the inside of a human body. (Ballard was a medical student for 2 years). Also, there are passages read from Crash - with Ballard looking on at the carnage of test car crashes, and a fragment of Vermilion Sands, read over shots of Ballard walking through a gravel quarry. There's a good use of music too, with selections from Arvo Pärt (found on his instrumental collection Tabula Rasa)

It's a shame, Warners could not include this wonderful film as part of their special edition DVD of Spielberg's Empire of the Sun (which does have a good documentary on the making of the film), so Ballard fans will have to track this one down online. It shouldn't be too difficult. You can watch the film online over at Ubu website
He stepped onto the gangway, conscious that he was probably leaving Shanghai for the last time, setting out for a small, strange country on the other side of the world… Yet only part of his mind would leave Shanghai. The rest would remain there forever…
from Empire of the Sun


  1. I have not read the book or seen the movie Empire of the Sun - this does sound interesting though.

  2. Craig, I would highly recommend Empire of the Sun to read - it's a relatively easy read in terms of Ballard's other novels (which can be difficult to navigate thru) and a very evocative portrait of a childhood spend in what was an extremely hostile environment... Definitely see the film too, it's one of Spielberg's best pictures and I think one of his most underrated and unappreciated. It's funny, I was thinking of the film yesterday when I was reading something about Saving Private Ryan, in which the author of the piece was describing the film's opening bloodbath, reminding readers that this sequence came "from the director of ET", the author seemingly forgetting that Spielberg had previously shown the horrors of war in Empire of the Sun and Schindler's List. I like to think of Empire of the Sun as being Spielberg's David Lean film, it has that sense of size and scale...