The Children of Huang Shi
2008, R, 114 min. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode. Starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Radha Mitchell, Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Li Guang, Ji Lin, Matt Walker, Anastasia Kolpakova.
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., June 27, 2008
If you had told me six months ago that the sad story of little-known World War II hero George Hogg was going to be told by the man who gave the world Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, I honestly wouldn’t have batted an eye. We’re talking about Hollywood after all, the place where anything is possible … even probable. There’s no reason why Sam Peckinpah's former editor (and the director behind Turner & Hooch) can’t tackle the true story of a young English adventurer who saved the lives of dozens of Chinese orphans during the brutal Sino-Japanese War of the 1930s and Forties, right? Well, I’m here to report that, despite my cynicism, and despite his movie’s almost total lack of both French mastiffs and Estelle Getty, director Spottiswoode has acquitted himself admirably – if unremarkably – with The Children of Huang Shi, which, to be fair, possesses a story so captivating and a setting so rich in cinematographic possibility, it would have taken a director far blander even than he to muck it up. Hogg is played by Rhys Meyers, whose piercing blue eyes and dulcet, velvety, lush, courtly (I could go on) voice are enough to seduce every maid in England on Showtime series The Tudors, though he has a harder time of it with unsentimental Australian nurse Lee Pearson (Mitchell), who convinces the young journalist to stay at a run-down orphanage in the remote mountain village of Shuang-shipu and help the war-shattered boys living there find a reason to “care whether they live or die.” He teaches them English and basketball and other glorious pursuits, all the while keeping them safe from the atrocities of the Japanese army, forced conscription by Chinese nationalists, and lice. Unfortunately, like so many movies that celebrate a historical hero, Children is plagued by an overblown sense of its own importance. Luckily, it comes with a built-in escape hatch by the name of Chen Hansheng (Chow), a resistance fighter who appears every 20 minutes to remind us that movies are supposed to be a kick. Cut from the same swashbuckling-rebel cloth as T.E. Lawrence and Robin Hood and Han Solo, Chen is a gust of refreshing air in an otherwise musty room. Take his rant during a bout of malaria: Unconcerned about his health, Chen’s only complaint is that the price recently put on his head by the Japanese army is offensively low. What’s the point of being a freedom fighter, after all, if your enemy refuses to acknowledge how big a pain in the ass you are? This is the kind of thing a great movie hero worries about, and though The Children of Huang Shi is an admirably solemn film, what the world could really use now is The Chen Hansheng Story. In glorious widescreen.