During the Japanese occupation of war-torn China during WWII, a young Oxford educated journalist by the name of George Hogg made his way to China, where he went looking for a good story and instead got more than be bargained for when he witnessed the brutality experienced by Chinese civilians from the Imperial Japanese Army. These acts of violence (which fall under The Rape of Nanking) convinced Hogg that the people of China needed him more than a news story ever would, and so he stayed. Through a series of events, helped run a Chinese orphanage, full of young boys who had lost their families in the war and somewhere along the line, Hogg realized that he needed these children as much as they needed him. The rest as they say, with no pun intended, is history, a word which appropriately sums up this sweeping “against all odds” epic has to offer.
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode, whose most notable films include Turner & Hooch and Tomorrow Never Dies, Children of Huang Shi, even with its star powers Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors, Match Point), Chow Yun Fat (Anna and the King, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), Michelle Yeoh (Memoirs of a Geisha, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) and up and coming actress Radha Mitchell (Silent Hill, Finding Neverland), fails to establish an emotional connection with the audience beyond the pure historical values of the film.
Meyers, who stars as culture shocked George Hogg is by and large unbelievable as a caretaker of 60 orphaned Chinese children. His dialogue is not only predictable, but the delivery of his lines seem bland. This is detrimental in a movie that depends on inspirational qualities to be successful. In one scene, he describes his father “as the bravest man he knows,” and also offers the same bit of description about Lee Pearson (Mitchell), telling her she’s the “bravest most beautiful woman [he's] ever met.” It is dialogue like this, that follows these characters throughout the film that gives it a “been there, done that” quality.
Rahda Mitchell fairs a bit better as Lee Pearson, a self-trained nurse who tends to Hogg during an injury, and that’s not saying much. Her connection with the orphaned children doesn’t seem contrived and as the film rolls along, and she genuinely seems sincere, unlike the relationship she shares with Hogg, which falls victim to cliche over and over again.
Meyers, who generally does well as a love interest in movies (think “Match Point”), was disconnected, despite the 5 second love scene that more or less did nothing to make their romance believable. Their relationship plays out as more a necessity for a warm body in troubled times and than a bonafide love affair.
Chow Yun Fat stars as Jack Chen, a leader of Chinese guerillas who rescue Hogg before the Japanese lay a hand, or rather sword on him. Fat’s performance is mediocre, though he helps propel the movie along nicely. He is comfortable in his role as a West Point educated Communist who returns to China in order to aid his country. Although, throughout the film, he seems to pop out of nowhere back onto the scene whenever he is separated from Lee or Hogg.
Michelle Yeoh stars as Madame Wang, a local merchant who Hogg bargains seed from to sew a vegetable garden. Yeoh does a great job connecting with the audience as soft-spoken, yet strong Wang. With that said however, her role takes a back seat to all others in the film, something which might have been a mistake, as it would have been able to produce at least a greater emotional connection and balance with the historical aspect of the film.
During the course of the film, Hogg struggles to gain acceptance by the orphans, who are wary of trusting strangers, but ultimately succeeds in bringing order to their unruly lives. He begins to teach them English, gardening and a plethora of other things that provide great value in an otherwise meek situation.
The headmaster and his boys are in their own little world, except for the occasional war planes that fly over head. In one incidence Hogg takes in four more orphans as he witnesses the death of their mother during an air raid. As the Japanese occupation of China draws closer to Huang Shi, Hogg gathers up his troupe and all their supples, and takes them across a 700-mile journey through blizzards and sandstorms to the western end of The Gobi Desert. This he believes, is their only chance of survival.
In a movie with so much emotion to offer, all of its actors, except for Guang Li as the rebellious leader of the orphans, Shi Kai, deliver emotionless portrayals of people who don’t seem to fit in with their surroundings.
If what you’re looking for is a historical representation of China’s past, and breathtaking cinematography, Children of Huang Shi is for you. With $40 million poured into this production, the scenery does more for China than any travel advertisement ever could. The score, composed by David Hirschfelder ( Shine, The Truman Show) is equally great.
If you want to walk away from a movie enthralled with the lives and relationships of the characters, their struggles, trials and tribulations, then look elsewhere. With poor character development that leads to virtual disconnect from the story lines and its characters, Huang Shi falls short on the umph factor, leading it to trail immensely behind other historical backdrop films exploring the same time period such as Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. As commenter Robert Kohler said on Rotten Tomatoes, “Director Roger Spottiswoode’s skills for physical production out pace his ability to generate vitality and bring out the best in his actors.”
Photos courtesy of Sony Classics