Loath though I am to carp about any director who’s devoted chunks of his career to bringing the non-white world’s suffering to Western attention, Roger Spottiswoode’s The Children of Huang Shi—a drama based on the life of an Englishman who saved an orphanage full of boys from Japanese invaders and Chinese nationalists in the 1930s—is a tale as ploddingly familiar as it is good-looking and worth telling.
Spottiswoode is hardly alone in distilling a distant country’s pain into the story of one white Westerner making a difference while world history rages around him. Just about every current Hollywood film set in Africa squeezes global conflict into the same fossilized frame.
Personally, I’d rather have a bad movie that distracts Americans from their navels for a moment than none at all. But even by the tainted standards of subconsciously imperial storytelling, The Children of Huang Shi is weak. Jonathan Rhys Meyers isn’t terrible as George Hogg, a naive young Brit hungry for adventure who passes himself off as a foreign correspondent just as the Japanese take over Shanghai. He’s just terribly incongruous: a 21st-century Irish heartthrob with hair barely tamped down from its trendy coxcomb, overcooking the Oxbridge accent of an early-20th-century toff who gets in over his head when the Japanese capture him on the road to Nanjing.
Saved from summary execution by a big name in a minor role—Chow Yun-Fat, hogging the light relief as a Chinese guerrilla—George is further redeemed, this time from his own self-regard, by Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell), a self-appointed American nurse. Lee dumps him at a barely functioning orphanage, where, after a brief sulk, George has the time of his life planting veggies, fending off lice, and finally fleeing with the boys along the unforgiving Silk Road.
Screenwriters James MacManus and Jane Hawksley’s idea of psychological complexity is to give every character innate nobility plus a human flaw to work through, while sprinkling the expository dialogue with Moments of Saving Humor, from which the director continually cuts away to lovely but ravaged scenery.
Like so many cookie-cutter international dramas of its kind, Huang Shi is a work from the heart hobbled by anxieties—some of them well-founded—that no one will finance, release, or show up for such earnest material without young stars, explosions, and the usual narrative arc curving from despair to hope. But the fact that the film’s freshest words come from the surviving children of Huang Shi, their lined old faces projected over the end credits, suggests we’d be better off watching the excellent 2007 documentary about Japan’s invasion of China, Nanking.