The Children of Huang Shi
Sony Pictures Classics
Now Showing at: The Esquire Theatre
Review by: Larry Thomas
Films that purport to cover historical events come in two flavors: dramatic and documentary. Sometimes, the two styles merge into something that’s a little of each.
Last year, Cincinnati World Cinema showed the film Nanking. Although a documentary, it used a cast of professional actors to read the letters and articles written by those who witnessed or were involved in the Japanese atrocities in the then capitol city of China in 1937.
Now comes a dramatic film about the same event, told from a British journalist’s point of view about that sad event. The Children of Huang Shi stars Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as George Hogg, who managed, with fake ID, to drive a Red Cross truck from Shanghai into Nanking in order to cover the invasion for his newspaper. Although Hogg is a real person, and wrote about what happened there, he was not represented in the documentary film of the tale.
The Children of Huang Shi plays out as if a tremendous amount of dramatic license was taken with the screenplay, which makes it feel like an extended, somewhat over-the-top Lifetime Movie of the Week.
Hogg barely survives his experiences in the war zone, and makes his way to Huang Shi, where he finds himself at an orphanage with the expected assortment of children: the bitter rebel teenager who puts himself in charge; the curious and inquisitive ones who become friendly; and the others who are really just there to fill out the cast. As the Japanese and Chinese armies edge closer to their temporary sanctuary, Hogg decides to lead the children to safety elsewhere, sort of an erstwhile Pied Piper.
The film itself is often gorgeous to look at, despite the horrors of war, as photographed by Oscar-nominee Xiaoding Zhao, who also shot House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower. Director Roger Spottiswoode has had a varied career, ranging from documentaries to TV movies to commercial films. His biggest success was the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, one of the better entries of the Pierce Brosnan era.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is a very accomplished actor, currently starring as the young King Henry the Eighth on Showtime’s series The Tudors. He has a couple of gripping scenes, especially one where he faces death. He is assisted in his trek by Radha Mitchell as the Australian nurse, who in best movie tradition, is hard as nails, completely devoted to her mission, and almost too good to be true. The terrific Chinese character actors Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh are wasted in small roles, and were obviously cast only for their name value in foreign markets, as they have little to do.
If you’re interested in the subject matter, you may like The Children of Huang Shi. It’s not a bad film, but there’s really nothing here that hasn’t been seen in two dozen other similar films over the decades.