The Children of Huang Shi
So much for just reporting the news. This conventionally told but nonetheless heartfelt historical drama recounts the true-life Herculean efforts of a British journalist to save a school of Chinese orphans during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Barely remembered by his fellow countryman, but revered to this day by the Chinese, George Hogg was an Oxford-educated adventurer who led 60 war orphans on a 700-mile trek during the Japanese occupation of China to prevent them from falling into the hands of the advancing occupying forces. In director Roger Spottiswoode's leisurely retelling of this heroic feat, Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is introduced sneaking into Nanking in 1937 to report on the three-sided war between the Japanese, Chinese Nationals and Chinese Communists. Upon his arrival, Hogg witnesses Japanese soldiers execute hundreds in cold blood. With the aid of Communist resistance leader "Jack" Chen (Chow Yun-Fat) and Red Cross nurse Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell), an injured Hogg is taken to recuperate at a school in Huang Shi. Once better, Hogg plans to tell the world what's happening in China. But he takes such a shine to the orphans that he decides to stay as the school's headmaster. Soon, though, news spreads that Japanese troops are marching toward Huang Shi. Hogg has no choice but to take the orphans on a months-long journey--with rough terrain and bitter weather ahead of them--to find a safe place to live and learn.
Let's ignore the fact that pretty-boy Rhys Meyers struts through the Second Sino-Japanese War looking more like a fashion-conscious playboy on vacation than a war correspondent dodging bullets and bombs. The hunkiest Henry VIII ever--sorry, Eric Bana--downplays the onscreen Hogg's evident superior complexity in order to react to the horrible circumstances he's found himself in with the appropriate amount of fear, compassion and resourcefulness. On the other hand, Yun-Fat acts like he's in Apocalypse Now. He gleefully spouts war-isn't-hell Kilgore-isms, even though his fervor and glibness are out of place in a film that treats the war with obvious grave solemnity. The tough-as-nails Mitchell does serve as something of a calming influence whenever she's around Yun-Fat. Unfortunately, sparks don't fly between Mitchell and Rhys Meyers, making it impossible to buy into their perfunctionary romance. Honestly, Rhys Meyers generates more heat with the sublimely regal Michelle Yeoh, whose black marketer is taken with this most charming customer. Too bad Yeoh doesn't share any moments with her Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon costar Yun-Fat. Of the orphans, the stone-faced Guang Li makes the greatest impression as a warrior among children who rightfully fears Hogg will usurp his authority.
"We're all something different in China," Pearson tells Hogg. That certainly holds true for Hogg. Beyond serving as a CliffsNotes-style history lesson in the Second Sino-Japanese War, The Children of Huang Shi asks what it takes during a time of conflict to transform an observer to a participant, a pacifist to an advocate of war. Actually, it doesn't take much for the reporter portrayed here to abandon his personal and professional principles. Even if director Roger Spottiswoode pulls no punches whenever he places Hogg in harm's way, our hero's swift conversion from impartial bystander to unlikely savior would still probably be laughed at by the hardened war correspondents in the director's superior Under Fire. Sadly, after depicting the horrors of war with bloody and brutal honesty, Spottiswoode falls into the trap of presenting Hogg as the all-knowing, all-sage Westerner out to rescue 60 "savages" not just from the Japanese but from themselves. The students don't teach anything of value to Hogg. Even his relationships with a select few students aren't as fully explored as those he shares with Pearson and Chen. That's not to say that the much-anticipated journey across the Gobi Desert isn't inspirational. It is, even if it seems more rushed and less eventful than expected. The Children of Huang Shi isn't as powerful or compelling as Schindler's List, but there's no denying that it may help Hogg receive the recognition he deserves outside of China for his selfless actions during a war that he had no vested interest in.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 1/2 stars.