The Children of Huang Shi is a historical drama set during the invasion of China by the Japanese in the 30s. Based on the true life story of George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Davies), the film starts out as a promising historical drama that enlightens us about a little known period of history. Then Hogg finds love in the form of an Australian nurse (Radha Mitchell) and the film falls into the stereotypical Hollywood romance/adventure film; pushing the historical and humanitarian message into the background.
Children follows the real life story of a British journalist, Hogg, who takes the identity of a Red Cross worker in order to sneak into Nanking which is sanctioned off by the Japanese. While there Hogg witnesses a mass execution and is captured by the Japanese. After being rescued by Chen Hensheng (Chow Yun-Fat), an explosives expert who is a member of the communist Chinese resistance group, Hogg is sent to take refuge at an orphanage for boys. Here he meets and falls in love with an Australian nurse, Lee Pearson (Mitchell). Hogg and Pearson teach the orphans language, mechanical repair and land cultivation. As the Japanese invasion becomes more urgent, Hogg decides to take the boys on a long journey through the mountains in order to find shelter in a faraway place.
This true life story was definitely worthy of the big screen treatment, but the Children screenplay would have been better served as a biography and no a Hollywood movie. What should have been an emotionally epic film is just a methodical and contrived plot that is predictable and cold most of the time. Instead of focusing on interesting three dimensional characters, the film resorts to an unconvincing romance between Hogg and Pearson. Two of China’s most well known actors, Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, plays roles that are nothing more than cameos and don’t have time to fully showcase their wonderful acting abilities. While Hogg is the protagonist you don’t feel moved or involved in his struggle when in real life the journey surely was more meaningful. Despite the flat and underdeveloped characters portrayed in Children the actors pull off excellent acting with what little material they were given.
Meyers plays a convincing part as Hogg and makes the flat character likable enough to cheer for. Perhaps the biggest waste of talent comes in Yun-Fat’s part in which his mundane and mediocre part is just there to propel the story forward. The same goes for Yeoh’s character that is added to provide additional back story and only shows up occasionally. Mitchell plays her character in a real life fashion and pulls off her role well. She successfully conveys the meanings she needs in the few emotional moments the film provides.
Overall, The Children of Huang Shi is a decent film that has a few shining moments. Most notably are the first-person testimonials from the real-life orphans during the closing title sequences. While the characters are underdeveloped the story does manage to hold your interest. Although never quite able to pin down the emotional story of this historical event it does provide some insight into a part of history most westerners have likely never known. Had this movie focused more on a biography nature it would have been a truly remarkable epic, but is nonetheless fun to watch.