Photo by Zhu Jialei © 2006 Ming Productions
COMRADES: Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Chow Yun-Fat make common cause in 'The Children of Huang Shi.
Save the Children
'The Children of Huang Shi'—at least the orphans don't sing
By Richard von Busack
DIDN'T I see this movie already? Didn't I see it on the late show with Ga3ry gently shilling Triple M carpets during the commercials? Didn't it star, I want to say, William Holden as the naive, idealistic journalist who goes to China during the 1930s and is shocked to find out what the Japanese Army is up to? Wasn't that Jennifer Jones as the gruff yet motherly nurse who saddles Holden up with an orphanage full of kids who have to be dragged to the Gobi desert? And wasn't Sessue Hayakawa the Chinese guerrilla fighter in the sheepskin jacket who keeps smoking cigarettes all through the picture? Whatever I saw, it couldn't have been The Children of Huang Shi after all, despite the late-night-movie plotting and the Bad Hemingway Contest dialogue. (Special honors go to the line where the English hero defends his pacifist breeding: "My mother had Gandhi to tea.")Jonathan Rhys Meyers, one of the most beautiful and dreadful actors in cinema, plays George Hogg, a pacifist who comes to Nanjing during the Japanese invasion. He sneaks behind the lines disguised as a Red Cross volunteer to take photos of the massacres. After a hairbreadth's escape from execution, Hogg joins with vaguely communist ex-Oxford guerrilla fighter "Jack" Chen (Chow Yun-Fat), as well as a blonde American nurse, Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell). The nurse sends Hogg to an orphanage in the hinterlands, and soon Hogg is teaching English there. With the help of a melancholy merchant, a Dietrich type played by Michelle Yeoh, Hogg starts up a farm and teaches the kids to play basketball. (This was a great sport among English pacifists of the 1930s.) As the war in the area warms up, Hogg decides to lead an exodus of the children into a safe zone near the Gobi desert. There, the boys can't be drafted by the Nationalist army.
One gets the sense of the Chinese government looking over the script with a magnifying lens. The commissars are less likely to be embarrassed by the way this film scrubs up the murderous politics of the war era than they ought to be embarrassed by the script. ("I love this part," says Yun Fat's Jack, as he blows up a building.) And while the violence is plentiful, the romance is all too modest. The subsidiary players should have gotten the lead parts, anyway; Yun-Fat looks rugged and cool, and there's no plausible explanation for the reason why Mitchell's character doesn't want him. Yeoh looks like the kind of seasoned woman who could make a man out of Rhys Meyers. And let's be fair, it may be that Rhys Meyers will amount to something, someday; at his age both Terence Stamp and Pierce Brosnan were so lightweight they practically levitated off the film emulsion.
No one can argue with the authenticity of the Chinese terrain or the nobility of the real-life Hogg. Like Schindler, the hero is memorialized with real-life interviews of the old men who were brought to safety by the English pacifist. I would love to know more about Hogg, because I feel like I know less about him now than I did before I saw The Children of Huang Shi.
THE CHILDREN OF HUANG SHI (R; 114 min.), directed by Roger Spottiswoode, written by Jane Hawksley and James MacManus, photographed by Xiaoding Zhao and starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Radha Mitchell, Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, opens May 30 at Camera 12 in San Jose and CinéArts Santana Row.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.