“The city is quiet,” types intrepid British journalist George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). He’s sitting inside an abandoned building in Nanking, 1937. He’s made his way there from Shanghai (by posing as a Red Cross driver), hoping to score a great, action-packed story about the Sino-Japanese war. Brash and naïve, he’s the sort of Western adventurer who shows up in movies about the mysterious Orient. That is, he has no idea what he’s just stepped into, even as he’s waxing poetic on his portable typewriter.
Just then, young George hears shooting. Scampering to the broken window to look out, he’s stunned to see a Japanese military unit marching Chinese civilians into the street, where they open fire. He takes some photos, then falls back, gasping, the camera close on his face as tears form and he’s unable either to breathe or scream. With this focus on his horror, the essential void at the center of Children of Huang Shi is agonizingly obvious. Not only is it another movie about a well-meaning white man stumbling into an exotic and unknowable elsewhere, it is also a movie about his witnessing of intra-Asian warfare, without context, complication, or investigation of responsibility.
Within minutes, George is staggering along ravaged Nanking streets, a sad and lonely piano tune trailing after him, when he’s picked up by the very villains he’s just seen kill all those Chinese. His efforts to explain himself are instantly irrelevant when his captors get a look at his massacre photos. Oh dear. Now he’s in trouble for precisely that witnessing that was just minutes ago a sign of his empathy and goodness. You can guess what comes next: facing certain death (by decapitation, in case you hadn’t yet determined that these Japanese soldiers are monstrous in every way), George is saved. He still has an hour and a half worth of movie to carry out.
The mildly surprising part of this predictable saga—based on a true story but dressed up in mightily melodramatic trappings—is that George is saved by Chow Yun-Fat. As the rebel Chen, he is magnificent, wise, and wily, the ideal mentor for young Grasshopper. Er, George. When it turns out that George has been injured and traumatized to the point that he can’t keep pace with Chen’s rebel group, he’s sent off to recuperate and also do some good work at an orphanage in the mountains, essentially granted a movie unto himself, surrounded by adorable supporting players and even given a girlfriend to boot. Cocky even when he’s been beaten and rescued and owes some respect, George resists being left in charge of some 60 children used to running around like they’ve been abandoned. But he’s got to be redeemed, and so… he goes.
He also needs to be expanded and elevated, per the film’s formula. The process is enlivened and enabled by his relationship with itinerant Australian do-gooder Lee (Radha Mitchell). She arrives with medicine, warm smiles, and vague advice, then leaves him with soap and powder and instructions to rid the kids of lice. Much as he stamps his foot and mutters about what he wants, however, George soon learns that what is best for him is best for the kids, which is the way the world works in movies about white people looking for themselves in The Orient. George does find himself reflected in the various characteristics embodied by the children, as well as in the disturbing adoration not quite articulated by Madame Wang (Michelle Yeoh).
As George must learn to keep “his” children safe from both the Japanese and Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese nationalist forces, he also takes up trade with Madame Wang, the local black marketeer who provides him with seeds so the children can make of their bleak site a working farm (pride! hard work! camaraderie!), as well as information as to when trouble’s coming when she’s not admiring him from afar. Though George remains ignorant of her desire, the film uses both Madame Wang and Chen as odd sorts of surrogates for the white couple, watching them teeter toward their inevitable romance, yarning for them, and also wishing them well. It’s a most tedious business, especially when Madam Wang makes a special, silent, extreme sacrifice to ensure George’s safety. The fact that he never knows makes her gesture exceedingly poignant. The fact that you do know also makes it exasperating.
Such conventional racing of sex and heroics recalls the sort of epic fantasy offered by 1956’s The King & I (even taking into consideration the complexities of Chow Yun-Fat’s version of King Mongkut in the 1999 non-musical remake). With all the stories to be told about the war between Japan and China, it’s hard to believe that this one was the most compelling or most in need of telling.