Out of China Cross the Bay
Another “inspired by a true story”-- which means allowing whatever liberties -- The Children of Huang Shi follows in the line of humanitarian sacrifice stories labeled “uplifting.” Roger Spottiswoode directed from the script by James MacManus and Jane Hawksley from the former’s article written as a correspondent in Beijing and incorporating later research for his Ocean Devil, about the last year of George A. Hogg.
The youngsters of the title are adorably fine, but the storyline and its unnecessary, even objectionable Westerners’ falling in love are hackneyed routine, while the three leads do not convince one to care about their fates. Apart from an opening done in Melbourne, the rest was impressively shot in China but for most of the two-hours-plus-five minutes, the location, the children who play the sixty orphans, and the story of Hogg are done in by unimaginative clumsy production.
Like Slaughterhouse-Five for Dresden, last year’s documentary-and-dramatic reading Nanking brought from history’s closet the 1937-38 Japanese scorched-earth assault on, twenty thousand rapes and ten times that number of executions in, China’s then-capital, now Nanjing. Reacting against his parents’ World War I pacifism and Anglo-American racist isolationism, Oxford man Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) arrives to record and spread abroad the facts as Shanghai falls to the invaders. Wet behind the ears beside experienced journalist Barnes (David Wenham) who knows Tokyo has not officially declared war so that captured combatants are not entitled to POW treatment, Hogg secures altered Red Cross papers for the two of them to enter beleaguered Nanking with hidden photographer Eddie Wei (Ping Su). Horrified there while taking his own snapshots of the massacre and burning of civilians, he is captured by the Japanese but rescued from beheading by “Jack” Chen (Chow Yun Fat) and his Communist irregular saboteurs.
After witnessing his two entering companions summarily shot, Hogg and Jack wind up nursed in the overextended medical center tended by Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell), an American who learned doctoring on the spot, was briefly Jack’s lover and is now his friend, and a user of opium to quiet the emotional horror of it all. Witnessing more butchery on the way, including internecine Communist-Nationalist sniping among defenders, the Englishman is shipped off to recover and learn Chinese at relatively peaceful Huang Shi.
There he is to stay at the rundown former school now an orphanage, teachers and staff gone except for an elderly cook (Shuyuan Jin, as Lo San) with insufficient maggoty rice, sometimes visited on horseback by Lee with supplies, and housing five dozen or so shy, unwashed, family-less kids with no supervision. What develops is no cinema surprise.
Convinced that men want only to feel needed by women, Lee has toughened herself, so sparks fly when she makes her rounds there. But despite the animosity of adolescent orphan leader Shi Kai (Guang Li), who carries a pet cricket, Hogg is so drawn in that he aborts his flight, installs a power generator, garden and basketball hoop, helps Lee delouse, disinfect and clean up, and gives English classes to pupils who pronounce well with ridiculous ease though rendering his surname “Ho-Ke” after it was mistranslated as “Pig.”
He also sets up a barter-sharecropping deal with Lee’s merchant acquaintance (and supplier), Madame Wang (Michelle Yeoh). The sole interesting adult character, the stunning timeserver hoards cash from selling grain, seed, cloth and drugs, reads in English, explains the historical East-West Silk Road, is impressed by and offers affection to Hogg with such fine restraint that he probably does not catch it, and makes a real woman’s sacrifice for him that he will never know about.
Jack and Lee back, Japanese planes strafing fleeing refugees with imperial troops close behind, Hogg supervises the packing up of children and supplies onto mule-drawn handcarts, to set off westwards for Sandhan, seven hundred miles through the Gobi Desert and over winter-snowed mountains. This three-month “Long March in miniature” astounds locals, like the Lanzhou magistrate (Shu Li) who furnishes four Dodge trucks to ease the last quarter of the trek. The vehicles are salvation in a large way but also the individual undoing of Hogg.
Following a promising beginning, the war, an unadorned Hogg, and the children’s ordeal and survival -- now elderly, several praise their “imperfect” savior during end-credits -- could have made for good filmmaking. But too much flat love interest, too much love triangle, and three stock-character grown-ups are in the end too much baggage.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "R" for disturbing and violoent content.)