The Children of Huang Shi is a "based on a true story" movie that feels about nine degrees removed from what probably really did happen — and that within those degrees was probably a more interesting story.
The movie kicks off in 1937 China, in the midst of civil war between the Communists and Nationalists and regular war between the Japanese and the combined Chinese.
We're told in a tag as the movie starts that the Japanese are assaulting the Chinese city Nanjing and that war reporters are eager to get past Japanese forces to get into the city and get the story. One such is the "young, inexperienced English reporter" George Hogg.
Cue actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors, Elvis, Vanity Fair), who's all stratospheric cheekbones and icy eyes. As Hogg, Rhys Meyers seems neither young nor inexperienced. But he's a good enough actor. You can get past the filmmakers throwing him under the bus in the editing room.
Hogg masquerades as a Red Cross worker to get into Nanjing, where he encounters rubble-strewn streets stinking of dead bodies and dogs eating them. Hogg sneaks around before witnessing the massacre of dozens of innocents, which he captures with his camera — at such times I wonder if I'm so desensitized to cinematic war atrocities that even the rape of Nanjing can't get a rise out of me.
Hmmm, better to blame Huang Shi director Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies, The 6th Day). The action in the film isn't convincingly shot or edited, be it firing squads or Japanese Zeros on strafing runs. I'm tired of the shaky camera that tries to cover up the fact that there's not much to see.
The script is undercooked too. Hogg encounters a Communist resistance fighter (Chow Yun-Fat), a beautiful, flawed white-lady nurse of indeterminate nationality (Radha Mitchell), and a noble merchant (Michelle Yeoh) whose honor is intact but compromised by the war. They all add a little spice, but the plot never simmers. Plus, Yun-Fat and Yeoh never appear together on screen. Outrageous!
Hogg ends up at a Chinese orphanage, where he's conscripted to be the protector of a rabble of boys. He teaches them English and basketball (Yao Ming, you know who to thank), and they help him become a man. This two-thirds of the movie is all a little too predictable, even if it is based on a true story. I bet the real account was something.
The Children of Huang Shi
Opening Friday, July 4th