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June 6, 2008

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Movie Review – The Children of Huang Shi (2008)

by HELEN GEIB

The Children of Huang Shi is based on the remarkable life of George Hogg, a young Englishman who journeyed to China in 1937 with aspirations of becoming a war correspondent and stayed to run a poverty-stricken rural orphanage. It is a frustratingly bad film. All the pieces are in place to produce a stirring and inspiring story of courage and selfless devotion, but the promise of the material goes unfulfilled. The assembled work is shallow, conventional, and belabored.

In brief, the events depicted in the film are as follows: Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) comes to China with journalistic ambitions. He arrives in Nanking shortly after the Japanese invasion. There he meets Communist fighter Chen (Chow Yun-Fat) and foreign aid worker Lee (Radha Mitchell), both of whom reappear periodically through the story. On their suggestion, he goes to a rural school turned impromptu orphanage as a stopover on his way to the front. He stays, meets local merchant Madame Wang (Michelle Yeoh), commits himself to the children, and ultimately leads them on a perilous journey hundreds of miles westward to escape the effects of the Chinese civil war and the Japanese occupation.

The film opens with an averment that it is based on a true story. The statement is worded in such a way that it reads almost equally as a disclaimer to fidelity to actual events. As the movie is my only source of information about Hogg, I do not know how much of what is shown in the film is basically true and how much is basically invention. However, I strongly suspect the film is almost entirely invention around a spare framework of the real Hogg’s movements from point A to point B.

My suspicion is based in part on my conviction that the real man who created this belief-defying life cannot have been either shallow or conventional. That conviction was reinforced by the end credits sequence, which incorporates extracts from interviews with some of the surviving children from the orphanage. Although very brief, their descriptions of Hogg provide a tantalizing glimpse of a fascinating story more obscured than illuminated by the dramatization. It is not often that I say I would rather have watched a documentary- but I would rather have watched a documentary.

Meyers’ performance is rather poor. Mitchell’s is flat. Chow and Yeoh bring life to their scenes; I would also rather have watched a movie about their characters. The children’s characters are woefully undeveloped. They are types rather than individuals: petty tyrant boy; scholar boy; gardener boy; mechanic boy; bed-wetter boy. The script telegraphs every plot point and the direction is leaden.

A rather odd aspect of the film is its consistent demonization of the Nationalists and glamorization of the Communists. While it is a close contest, the Nationalists may actually be presented in an even more unfavorable light than the Japanese invaders. Does this reflect Hogg’s particular experiences? The filmmakers’ sympathies? Or was it a condition for obtaining filming permits and distribution in the People’s Republic of China? While the landscapes of western China are truly stunning, a superficial and biased representation of complex historical events is a steep price to pay for beautiful scenery.

For those interested in films about China c. 1937, let me suggest the following superior and readily available alternatives to The Children of Huang Shi: The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), a better Hollywood film based on a surprisingly similar true story of a woman aid worker who led a group of children across a mountain range to escape the Japanese occupation; Hong Kong 1941 (1984), a powerful Hong Kong drama about three friends and their desperate efforts to survive the Japanese invasion of the city, starring Chow Yun-Fat; Nanking (2007), a documentary about the Japanese occupation of that city; and The White Countess (2005), an evocative re-creation of life in the European quarter of Shanghai on the eve of war.

1 1/2 stars


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  1. miriam
    Jun 7 2008

    The documentary, Nanking, is quite powerful and uses an interesting blend of contemporary film, current interviews, and dramatization. The dramatization doesn’t attempt to recreate events, but consists of actors speaking the words (from letters and diaries) of the several Westerners who attempted to maintain a safety zone for the civilian population. We hear their personal commentary and day by day accounts of events mixed with the horrific film images – taken secretly with great courage – of the occupation. I thought it a very effective way to bring immediacy and humanity to the historical record. And you don’t have to wonder how much is really real in that ‘based on real events’ disclaimer.

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