A little-known true story is sensitively brought to the screen in "The Children of Huang Shi," which is about the rescue of 60 Chinese children orphaned by war.
George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) arrives in Shanghai from England in 1938 just as the Japanese are taking control and enlists as a war correspondent. In occupied Nanjing he witnesses the massacre of 200 Chinese and is about to be executed himself when guerrillas led by "Jack" Chen (Chow Yun Fat) come to the rescue.
Wounded, George ends up recuperating in a rundown children's orphanage in rural Huang Shi, where the boys are slow to warm to him. Inevitably, he becomes their champion. He has an occasional accomplice in American nurse Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell), who was once Jack's lover. With the Japanese poised to advance and Chinese nationals on the prowl for young recruits, George decides to trek the entire brood to a safe village in the faraway Gobi desert.
This may sound like the kind of implicitly condescending Great White Father saga in which Hollywood specializes. But the story is true, and director Roger Spottiswoode never depicts the Chinese as anything less than George's equals. The movie may be a heavy dose of inspirationalism but it never preaches. We don't need to be told that these events actually took place because everything in it makes human sense (except, perhaps, the fact that George is immaculately clean-shaven throughout).
With his saintly aura, George is somewhat less interesting than Lee, whose anxieties are right on the surface. Mitchell brings her to life even when the script is skimpy. Lee is a troubled soul, but she has chosen the trouble. Like George, or Jack, for that matter, she is driven beyond reason by a sense of righteousness. The movie is saying that it is only through such people that great humanitarian change is accomplished. You can argue with this thesis, but at least we're not talking about Marvel Comics superheroes here. George and Lee are real superheroes.
Spottiswoode – who directed the great political film "Under Fire" – is a vastly underrated director who often is at his best with large-scale political subjects. "The Children of Huang Shi" is not his best work – it could have used a much sharper script – but it radiates intelligence. Of how many historical epics can that be said these days? Grade: B+. (Rated R for some disturbing and violent content.)