Earnestness is the main characteristic of this true-life biodrama about a British journalist’s effort to protect a schoolful of orphans from brutal Japanese invaders in war-torn China during the late 1930s. If you can imagine a weird melding of Ingrid Bergman’s “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” (1958) with Spencer Tracy’s “The Devil at 4 O’Clock” (1961), you’ll have some idea of what “The Children of Huang Shi” is like. It’s high-minded and good-looking but plodding and emotionally rather shallow.
Up-and-coming Jonathan Rhys Meyers (“The Tudors”) stars as George Hogg, a young reporter who travels to Shanghai in 1937 to cover the Japanese takeover of the mainland. Pretending to be relief workers, he and colleague Barnes (David Wenham) make their way to Nanking, where Barnes is killed and Hogg witnesses atrocities on a massive scale and becomes a target himself. Happily he’s rescued by a band of partisans led by communist Chen (Chow Yun-fat), who’s entered into an on-again, off-again alliance with the Nationalists against the conquerors, and who’s persuaded by Dr. Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell), an abrasive but pretty medic, to transport George to rustic Huang Shi, where the Brit finds a bunch of orphans left to their own devices and living a sort of “Lord of the Flies” existence at a school bereft of any adult supervision but for Lo San (Jin Shuyuan) who has little left to serve.
What follows may be based on fact, but it’s hardly surprising anyway. Hogg’s encouraged by Lee to remain at the school and become a surrogate father figure to the boys—a difficult job since the leader of the pack, Shi-kai (Guang Li), is a surly noble youth turned bitter by his family’s death, but one that he eventually proves adept at, earning the children’s affection and loyalty bit by bit. He also uses his negotiating technique to reach an arrangement to secure food and seed from local merchant Madame Wang (Michelle Yeoh), who becomes a firm supporter of his efforts despite the danger it might put her in. (Compare the Robert Donat character in “Inn.”) And a romance blossoms between George and Lee, in spite of the fact that Chen’s reappearance leads to the revelation that he was once involved with the doctor, too (and to his becoming a militant model for Shi-kai).
Ultimately the approach of the Japanese causes Hogg to reach a fateful decision to lead his charges, along with Pearson and Chen, on a long, difficult trek across desert and mountain trails to the distant interior, where they will be safe. The journey brings some obstacles and tragic losses, but the group encounters helpful locals as well. Unfortunately, though they reach the desired haven, it entails a considerable sacrifice.
This is an inspiring story, but frankly it’s not unlike so many past pictures in which westerners act as saviors to people in other areas of the world, and the treatment by Roger Spottiswoode is obviously devoted, but perhaps too much so—tending to treat many episodes so reverentially that the energy level slips to dangerous levels. (It’s the initial Nanking sequence, in fact, that’s the most intense.) And while Rhys Meyers cuts a stalwart figure, in his hands nobility seems to come a bit too easily to Hogg. Nor does the romance between him and Mitchell’s Pearson strike sparks, coming across as more prim and proper than truly passionate. By contrast Chow brings an engaging rascality to the party, and Yeoh an impressive dignity, and the various youngsters cut strong figures.
“The Children of Huang Shi” is visually impressive, especially considering its modest budget: the locations are often spectacular, and Zhao Xiaoding’s cinematography makes the most of them. And it’s capped by an irresistible touch, superimposing recollections of Hogg from surviving members of the orphan troupe over the final credits in a fashion reminiscent of “Schindler’s List.”
But it’s telling that those simple verbal testimonies carry greater emotional punch than the elaborate dramatization that Spottiswoode fashions in the film itself. In the final analysis “The Children of Huang Shi” is well-meaning and handsomely mounted, but a bit too respectful and genteel for its own good.