June 5, 2008

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The Children of Huang Shi (R)
An interesting bit of Chinese history gets bogged down with clunky melodrama and some truly lousy dialogue in The Children of Huang Shi, the based-on-a-true-tale about a Chinese orphanage in the late 1930s.

British adventure-seeker George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is looking to make his name as a war reporter and, in 1937, he finds himself in Shanghai trying to maneuver a way into the war zone (roughly, itís the Japanese fighting both Chinese nationalists and Chinese communists, who sometimes work together and sometimes donít). He sneaks into a besieged city but is captured by the Japanese and nearly shot, escaping with the help of the communist resistance fighter Chen (Chow Yun-Fat). Chen takes him to Lee (Radha Mitchell), a nurse who recommends that George lie low for a bit at an orphanage out in the countryside. Speaking basically no Chinese and with no interest in sitting out the war with a bunch of kids, George ó whom they all call Pig because of his last name ó suddenly finds himself with a school full of boys to take care of. But as the war moves closer, conscription into the army becomes as dangerous for some of the boys as bombardment. Thusly, George starts to form a plan to march his kids some 700 miles away.

This period of Chinese history is fascinating ó in the middle of a civil war that will be interrupted for eight-some years by war with Japan. Equally interesting are the interviews at the end of the movie with the real-life children (now old men) helped by the real George Hogg. They discuss the orphanage, the march, the war. The interviews are a living reminder of a history not nearly as well known to Americans as the state of Europe during those years.

Vastly less interesting is everything between the setup and the interviews running over the credits. Meyers here is dreadful, saved from utter awfulness only because you can compare him to the wretched Mitchell. Even Chow Yun-Fat is poorly used.

The Children of Huang Shi isnít a total loss; it gives a glimpse into a piece of history not well known and gave me desire to learn more. But even this and its lovely cinematography canít beat the informative and blessedly Meyers-and-Mitchell-free experience of just reading a Wikipedia entry. D+

Rated R for some disturbing and violent content. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode and written by Jane Hawksley and James MacManus, The Children of Huang Shi is an hour and 54 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Sony Pictures Classics.