[1 July 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
While it may seem sacrilegious to say it, stories of heroic human efforts during the tenuous dangers of wartime appear to be an international dime a dozen. Just when you think all the narrative bases have been covered, and no other angle could possibly emerge, a film comes along that explains yet another case of will triumphing over evil, spirit surviving the horrors inherent in conflict. Granted, not every one of these tales needs to be illustrated, but that doesn’t stop Tinsel Town from cranking out such indirect apologies. Japan’s torment of China prior to World War II serves as the basis for The Children of Huang Shi, yet another explanatory attempt. Yet as typical with most of these stories, it takes a courageous Caucasian to steer the natives - and the narrative - in the right direction.
As a reporter trying to buy his way into the battle torn provinces deep inside the China countryside, George Hogg is willing to risk his life for a story. But when he witnesses a horrible massacre, and is taken prisoner by the Japanese, it looks like his tour of duty is over. Luckily, he is saved by the Chinese rebellion, led by Chen Hansheng, and sent off to a remote school to care for some orphans. There he meets up with Red Cross nurse Lee Pearson, and together they try to reconstruct the lives of these poor, unfortunate kids. Luckily, Hogg is a natural teacher, and he manages to make ends meet with the help of a local opium merchant named Mrs. Wang. But when the Japanese push ever closer to their compound, our hero decides to do something desperate. His plan? Take his kids across the dangerous Liu Pan Shan mountains and relocate on the edge of the Mongolian desert.
While it would definitely make a far better documentary than a drama (it is based on a true story and an actual person, after all), The Children of Huang Shi has some potential at first. Granted, the site of The Tudors’ Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Hogg and the enigmatic Chow Yun-Fat as Hansheng prepares us for a fully fictionalized take on this material. Add in Radha Mitchell as our medical missionary and Michelle Yeoh as the poppy peddler and you know reality is slowly drifting away. And thanks to the gloss of good intentions ladled on top by journeyman director Roger Spottiswoode, we sense there will be more heart tugging and hand wringing than history. Unfortunately, that’s just the start of this film’s problems. The Children of Huang Shi is so desperate to be the Asian Schindler’s List, an example of atrocity draped in abject artistry, that it forgets to lay out the context.
Since the crimes committed in the name of Japan are so utterly reprehensible, it’s hard to believe the movie needs more scope. But the truth is that few in the audience are students of the facts, and without such a perspective, the mass murder witness feels gratuitous. Similarly, we never buy into Hogg’s desire to play the part of reporter. His initial goals seem far more selfish than Fourth Estate-d. It makes his personal sacrifice later seem cockeyed, not commendable, and the entire middle section reeks of an Eastern Dead Poet’s Society. Mitchell and Chow appear superfluous, foisted on the viewer every once in a while so as to keep the narrative in forward motion. Far more interesting are the moments with Madame Wang, Yeoh bringing her standard grace to a part played mostly for what it infers, not what it deliberately does.
This is part of Spottiwoode’s style, to incorporate as much of Hogg’s mythos into his movie as possible without going into too much heady explanation. Montages take the place of the standard growing pains, and when the group finally starts that celebrated trek across the Chinese mountains, it’s like Lord of the Rings retrofitted to a 1930’s travelogue. What we require here is a center, a clear focus on what we should care about and why. Since the kids, with a rare exception here and there, are mostly interchangeable, their dilemma is not daunting enough. And since Rhys Meyers seems too perky to be perturbed by his stranger in a strange land fate (he picks up the language and customs quite easily), his eventual arc leaves little impact.
And then there is that gnawing cinematic de-vice of having a white man save the day. In films like Cry Freedom, where South African reporter Donald Woods winds up accepting the cinematic martyrdom for befriending Stephen Biko, there is an unhealthy implication that people of color can’t champion their own causes. Instead, they need someone like Hogg to bring their colonialist bravado to the fore and face off against the enemy. The Children of Huang Shi is not quite as obvious as the aforementioned narrative affront, but it does rely an awful lot on our twee English gentleman to get us over the potential dangers. Even worse, the role of the Chinese resistance is reduced to off-hand champions. They love to blow stuff up, but never seem to arrive in time to completely save the day.
No, it’s a tribute to what Hogg managed to do with just his wits and a few lucky breaks that the post-credits testimonials from the last remaining real life ‘children’ he helped (Now very old men) manage to resonate. Amidst all the grandstanding and skylarking, moments of misplaced manipulation, and outright disingenuousness, this movie manages to make its point. Since Spottiswoode’s bio would never suggest a Spielberg or Scorsese style epiphany, he can’t help but fumble the film’s many contradictory threads. At any given moment, in any given scene, we could have a far reaching family film, a war-torn thriller, a too languid love story, an able international intrigue, and an illustration of misguided political policy pitting one foreign locale against another. And even then, the movie manages to leave the smallest of impressions. The Children of Huang Shi is not a bad movie. It’s just not the great historic document it pretends to be.