The Children of Huang Shi

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Opens: Friday, May 23 (Sony Pictures Classics)

Full of incident but nearly devoid of dramatic tension, "The Children of Huang Shi" is a based-on-fact saga that has lost much of its power on the long road to the screen.

The story of an unlikely British hero in 1930s China clearly was a huge undertaking on Chinese locations and backlots, but director Roger Spottiswoode only occasionally achieves the historical sweep and intimate romance for which he strives. The China-Australia-Germany production finally is more admirable than affecting. Despite its big-screen beauty, this art house entry is not destined to carve out an epic profile at the boxoffice.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers is effective, if lacking in heft, in the underwritten role of George Hogg. Seeking adventure, the young British reporter arrives in 1937 Shanghai to cover the Sino-Japanese War and ends up leading 60-odd orphans on an arduous trek to safety. His exploits begin when, after sneaking into Nanjing with a colleague (David Wenham), he witnesses a massacre of civilians by the occupying Japanese and is caught with a camera full of photographic evidence.

In their images of war's devastation, these early scenes bear a timeless poignancy, Zhao Xiaoding's eloquent lens prowling the shadows of production designer Steven Jones-Evans' rubble-strewn streets. But the emotional impact is dulled by mechanical, choppy storytelling. Most audiences might not have an immediate grasp of the period, but the history lessons are all too thinly disguised as dialogue.

Providing some of that helpful background info is Chow Yun Fat, underused as Chen, a West Point-educated engineer who leads a group of Communist rebels and saves Hogg from execution by the Japanese. He also puts him in the care of Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell), an American Red Cross nurse who suggests that the wounded Brit hole up in the remote northwestern village of Huang Shi.

Chen wants Hogg to learn Mandarin so he can be of more help to the cause; Lee wants him to oversee a boys' orphanage. Over a vague passage of time, he does both, in the process falling for the tough but haunted Lee. In Hogg's mission to refurbish the dilapidated orphanage, he finds an ally in an elegant businesswoman (a slim role for Michelle Yeoh). Like most of what transpires onscreen, Hogg's growing bond with the children, even a recalcitrant teen (Guang Li) is suggested rather than felt.

To protect his charges from the advancing Japanese and the Nationalists, who view all boys as potential soldiers, Hogg plans a daring 700-mile journey, and the story regains its footing, and a pulse. But it can't fully recover its dissipated energy.

Too often the script -- credited to James MacManus (whose 1985 Daily Telegraph article on Hogg brought his story to light in the West) and Jane Hawksley -- feels cobbled together from stock moments. Hogg, as written, is too transparent and uncomplicated a hero to inspire much audience involvement; the true emotional anchor is Mitchell's convincingly complex nurse. Her performance and the handsome widescreen camerawork by Zhao ("House of Flying Daggers") are the most potent elements of a less-than-potent mix.

Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Radha Mitchell, Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, David Wenham, Guang Li. Director: Roger Spottiswoode. Screenwriters: James MacManus, Jane Hawksley. Executive producers: Taylor Thomson, Lillian Birnbaum. Rated R, 125 minutes.


 

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