Dir. Roger Spottiswoode, 2008, China/Australia/Germany, 125 minutes.
The Children of Huang Shi is the epic tale of a journalist seeking adventure who leads an orphanage of Chinese boys to safety from Japanese invaders in the late 1930’s. Yet the real test of endurance is on the shoulders of an audience challenged to sit through more than two hours of predictable plot turns and recycled sentimentality.
The Roger Spottiswoode-directed saga is a story of redemption, ‘inspired’ by the biography of British journalist George Hogg (Rhys Meyers), hardly a household name for international audiences. Neither the cast nor the restrained drama (by the standards of grand epics on Chinese subjects) will bring much of a public to this motivational period piece.
Nor are wide Asian audiences likely to warm to this colonial homily about a handsome Christ-like Englishman who herds mostly-faceless Chinese youths to safety. Two weeks of general release in China has seen it take $1.27m against Three Kingdoms, with $188,000 in Hong Kong. Eve n with tepid on-screen atrocities, Japan won’t be much of a market, although curious Chow Yun Fat fans may seek the title out eventually in home video.
Hogg’s journey begins in lavishly-decadent pre-invasion Shanghai (another boilerplate template). The passionately naïve reporter, then 23, charms a relief worker to let him drive into the ruins of Nanking with supplies and two other journalists, where he photographs Japanese troops conducting their massacre. Captured by the Japanese, Hogg is saved from execution by partisans led by ‘Jack’ Chen (Chow) and watches the Japanese gun down his two friends. After another escape into a river filled with bodies, he awakens in a hospital to see a blonde American nurse, Lee Pierson (Mitchell, playing the role in a hardboiled monotone).
Through Lee, the ailing Hogg is sheltered at a dusty schoolhouse away from the fighting, which is filled with 60 boys whose parents have been massacred by the Japanese. The angry, unruly youths almost kill him at first, but Hogg prevails with advice from the grumpy cook (Jin) and Lee, who visits now and then. A basketball hoop and English classes (in the spirit of To Sir, With Love) bond Hogg and the boys, until the encroaching war sends them on an anguished march through harsh poetic terrain to another safe house, with panoramic shots which reach for the drama of Doctor Zhivago.
Spottiswoode’s direction of the broad canvas of war and the intimate canvases of love and personal struggle is by-the-book stuff of TV movies, of which he has made many. The script by James McManus and Jayne Hawkesly crams the epic events into a Schindler’s List frame - where a flawed, cocksure European learns humility and saves swarm of Chinese humanity, not to mention the more-flawed Mitchell in a modified Magdalene role. All that’s missing are nails and a cross.
In wide landscape shots, DP Zhao Xiaoding achieves effects that evoke the majesty of Chinese paintings which contrast the enormity of nature with the relative insignificance of humans journeying through it. Yet for a film set in a murderous war, we see far more of the rugged beauty of China than of the savagery of the Japanese invasion.
The barbaric sack of Nanjing by Japanese forces - still a touchpoint in relations between China and Japan - is surprisingly tidy in this version of events, and the massacre of prisoners which George Hogg witnesses trivialises the real scale of war crimes. Were the producers minimizing the on-screen atrocities in the hope of salvaging a Japanese market for the film’
Hyde Park Entertainment
SONY Pictures Classics
Jonathan Rhys Meyers