Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Radha Mitchell and Chow Yun-Fat star in The Children of Huang Shi, a little known drama set during the Japanese occupation of China. The movie, about a journalist who unwittingly becomes the protector of a group of orphaned boys, looks nice and offers fine performances, but fails to dig its claws into your heart.
Roger Spottiswoode, who sporadically has created well-known pictures such as Tomorrow Never Dies, hasn't done much of significance since the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The 6th Day back in 2000. Glancing at his resume, he hardly seems the choice to helm a drama such as this, but, at least on the surface, he turns in a pretty decent film. Visually, The Children of Huang Shi works, whether it's showing the scenery of inland China or the atrocities the Japanese inflict upon Chinese citizens. Spottiswoode manages the action well given the moderate $40 million budget, and should be commended for making a technically sound movie.
However, what it lacks is emotion. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is convincing and likable as the film's lead, George Hogg, but none of the characters are particularly engaging. Having just watched Defiance, which is similar in theme (both are about individuals standing up to protect innocents in war), Spottiswoode never rallies the audience to embrace its characters. Meyers is the protagonist, and yet his struggle does not come across as profound or as meaningful as Hogg's true journey surely was. The other characters are equally flat or undeveloped, or that the very least are uninspiring.
Another problem is the casting. While Meyers is fine, both Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh are distracting. It's no surprise that two of China's most well known actors are in a film such as this, yet given their supporting roles they come across as large cameos more than anything else. Yeoh, who seems to show up anytime the word "China" is mentioned, has a small and rather meaningless role; it's a waste of her talent. Chow gets more screen time, but his character is never developed enough to make us see past the action star. The casting of the children is better, but none of their characters are developed all that well, either.
The Children of Huang Shi has its moments, and is an all around decent film. It's rarely boring and generally keeps your interest, but its best sequences come near the beginning when we get to see some of the massacres of Nanjing. When Spottiswoode dives into the heart of the story, however, he loses focus and is never able to quite lock down the emotional center that is so essential to a picture like this.
The Children of Huang Shi gives insight into a unique story that most westerners are likely to have never heard of, but it unfortunately is a plain, minimally emotional attempt.
Review by Robert Bell (C+)
Going the route of most international productions, The Children of Huang Shi attempts to give narrative gravity and attract North American auds by overshadowing a significant moment in Chinese history with the banal love story of two camera-friendly Caucasians. Like a pimple on otherwise perfect skin, the characters are drawn with single-minded nobility and one unique flaw to make them human. It's a simplistic and not entirely convincing approach to characterization, which detracts from the impact of an otherwise interesting film.
George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Myers), a young British journalist poses as an aid worker in 1937 China in order to gain access to Nanjing, an area sanctioned off by the Japanese. After stumbling upon a mass execution, he finds himself in a sticky situation with the Japanese until being rescued by an explosives expert who is part of a communist Chinese resistance group, Chen Hensheng (Chow Yun-Fat).
By some clever manoeuvring on the part of Chen, Hogg finds himself taking refuge at a dilapidated orphanage for boys. He initially finds the situation difficult, being rejected by the untamed youths - primarily the belligerent, anti-authority Shi-Kai (Guang Li) - that is, until the arrival of a deeply empathic Australian nurse with a secret (Radha Mitchell). With her help and guidance, Hogg teaches the orphan boys lessons of hygiene, mechanical repair, language and the cultivation of land.
When the threat of Japanese invasion becomes increasingly urgent, he decides to take the boys on a harrowing journey through mountains and snow to find shelter in a far off place.
At the centre of a story that is certainly worthy of the big screen treatment is a detached and almost mathematical screenplay that gives little emotion to what should be a passionate epic. Each character reaction, accidental cut and step forward in plot is methodical and contrived, thus creating a predictability and coldness to the various outcomes. This artificiality tends to gloss over interesting character conflicts in favour of unconvincing romance and almost mystical heroism. This is really a shame, as subplots involving discord between the forgiving Hogg and more vengeful Chen, as well as the struggles Michelle Yeoh's character copes with as an opium dealer are far more interesting and complex than what is displayed on screen.
While set designs and cinematography are often impressive to watch, Spottiswoode's direction is surprisingly flat and the editing is often sloppy.
Performances throughout are solid and professional, with Radha Mitchell standing out as a subdued and deeply flawed woman who escapes her spotty past by helping those less fortunate. Her character is written with a heavy hand and a great deal of cliché, but the talented actress is able to effectively convey meaning with slight expressions in the few quiet personal moments of the film.
What stands out about Huang Shi are the first-person testimonials from remaining orphans that are shown over the closing title sequence, suggesting that a documentary approach to the subject matter may have been somewhat more effective.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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