The Children of Huang Shi
By Robert Koehler
Variety, May 2, 2008
The heroic true tale of a Brit journalist’s rescue of dozens of orphaned Chinese youth in the face of an advancing Japanese army has become a cloddish if gorgeous-looking wartime adventure epic in “The Children of Huang Shi.” Giving Jonathan Rhys Meyers the kind of manly yet paternal role Spencer Tracy once mastered, this carefully wrought international production relates the basic story of reporter George Hogg without any vibrancy, emotion or style. Late-act romantic touches seem unlikely to stir commercial interest for what looks like a small-scale performer at best, opening May 23 Stateside after its Chinese mainland preem.
While screenwriters James MacManus and Jane Hawksley stick to the general facts of the situation in China in 1937-38, when Japan brutally thrust deep into the mainland, they have an uncertain grasp of dramatic interest and distinctive characters. Based on the evidence here and in his previous film, the Rwandan-genocide drama “Shake Hands With the Devil” (also a true story of a white man trying to rescue nonwhite innocents), director Roger Spottiswoode’s skills for physical production outpace his ability to generate vitality and bring out the best in his actors.
Young reporter George (Rhys Meyers) arrives in Shanghai in late 1937 to report on the Nippon takeover of China and the combined efforts of Chinese nationalists and communists to fight back. He and colleague Barnes (David Wenham) manage to get behind Japanese lines in Nanjing (better known as Nanking) during the horrific destruction and occupation of the city.
During this section, the pic is intense in its depiction of what a journalist might encounter trying to report and shoot photos of atrocities. George is soon captured, but like cavalry coming over the hill, a rebel unit led by Chen (Chow Yun-fat), a communist engineer whose job is to blow up buildings to thwart the Japanese, saves the journo in the nick of time.
George actually has two last-second rescues at the hands of strangers — the second being doctor Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell) — and it’s at this point that the film begins to show signs of narrative exhaustion. Lee suggests to friend (and, as it turns out, ex-lover) Chen that they shuttle George to the relative safety of rural Huang Shi, site of a children’s orphanage, but once he arrives, George finds nothing but hostility.
Resident mother figure Lo San (Shuyuan Jin) has little control over the rapscallions who run roughshod over the orphanage. Lee tells the reluctant George he must stay here and take care of the boys — all the better to bone up on his Mandarin — while she makes house calls across the region.
Midsection settles into a predictable pattern of sequences in which George adjusts to his surroundings, makes friends with the boys — except their spiky leader, Shi-kai (Guang Li) — and connects with wealthy merchant Madame Wang (Michelle Yeoh, nicely cast).
While the central characters are finally allowed to develop some inner lives and a bit of friction (including a barely developed love triangle of sorts involving George, Lee and Chen), they are generally more pleasant than specific, while the real nemesis is often offscreen, in the vague form of a Japanese army on the march. In this regard, the pic underlines the general rule that humanitarians frequently don’t make for the most vivid film characters; George Hogg is simply drawn as a brave, kindly man who finds his life’s purpose, which isn’t filing daily war dispatches to Fleet Street.
Once those in the orphanage must flee from the encroaching army, the film shifts into an adventure epic that travels across large vistas of interior China, including some brief but striking passages in the Gobi desert. Longtime Zhang Yimou cameraman Zhao Xiaoding once again displays his skills at picturing human beings in the context of vast landscapes, despite plodding direction and editing.
The inevitable George-Lee love story finally blossoms, though all too briefly, and even tragic turns feel somewhat glossed over and emotionally parched. Rhys Meyers is certainly up for the challenge of a forthright hero and brings as many shades as he can, but he and the engaging Mitchell are unfairly saddled with lines like, “You are the bravest, most beautiful woman I’ve ever met.” Chow leaves little impression, while Guang is impressive in key scenes.
The multinational nature of the production displays all its resources, but that might also explain why too much of the dialogue is in English, including scenes the orphans couldn’t possibly understand.