The Children Of Huang Shi
Director Roger Spottiswoode's The Children of Huang Shi follows the old Western-Do-Gooder-in-the-Third-World genre formula scrupulously and skillfully, but there's no heart in it. The script suggests that the whole point of the brutal Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s was the moral redemption of a cynical British journalist and a guilty American ex-army wife. But no one believes that kind of nonsense anymore--not even the filmmakers and actors, who half-heartedly go through the motions, as if more from a sense of obligation than of inspiration.
Huang Shi is based on a true story. George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) was an ambitious British journalist who sneaked into Nanjing in 1937, just after the Japanese had overrun the Chinese capital. He witnessed a Japanese massacre of the local citizenry, and when the Japanese seized his camera, he was sentenced to a samurai beheading. Hogg was saved by the local Communist guerillas, led by Chen Hansheng (Chow Yun-Fat), who smuggle the wounded Brit to an abandoned orphanage in Huang Shi.
There, confronted by several dozen Chinese urchins running out of food, Hogg becomes the orphanage's de facto headmaster and restores the electricity, garden, grain supplies, school, and infirmary. He gets crucial help from a traveling American nurse (Radha Mitchell) and the local opium dealer with a heart of gold (Michelle Yeoh). And when the Japanese threaten to overrun the orphanage, Hogg leads the children on a 700-mile, winter journey across the mountains to the Gobi Desert and safety.
True the story may be, but it presents several puzzling questions that neither Spottiswoode nor screenwriters Jane Hawksley and James MacManus answer. Hogg arrives at the orphanage wounded, untrained in education and building maintenance, not speaking a word of Chinese, and surrounded by suspicious teenage gangs and then, after a perfunctory montage, he's teaching bilingual classes, repairing the school generator, planting a garden, and leading a basketball game, surrounded by peaceful, adoring children. The movie never explores how he got from point A to B.
It's a problem throughout the picture as Hogg's achievements are presented as transformations without transitions, climaxes without build-ups, facts without hows or whys. Similarly, the romance between Hogg and the American nurse feels propelled more by the remarkable bone structures of their faces than any personal affinity.
As always happens in these movies, the leading Western actors get the majority of the screen time, even though the vast majority of the characters are non-Western. But the Third World gets a measure of revenge in The Children of Huang Shi, for the two supporting performers, Yun-Fat and Yeoh, are so much more subtle, so much more charismatic, that they steal the movie from the ostensible leads.