Review by A.C. Miller
The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) in the background. Bombs exploding as British journalist George Hogg, fights through enemy lines to photograph the brutality of war. Innocents lined up and shot down in the streets. Battered survivors coping with a broken city as they fight to stay alive. The images of wartime during the Japanese occupation of China in 1938 are beautifully shot, captured, and reenacted in The Children of Huang Shi (2008).
Yet, the film nearly falls apart outside of these scenes.
Based on the true story of Hogg’s rescue of 60 orphaned boys by trekking nearly 700 miles from Shaanxi to Shandan, The Children of Huang Shi is a story that needs to be told. Hogg’s commitment to teaching the boys, providing them better living conditions, and preventing them from being recruited by the National Army is a story needing to be told, making the film a great tragedy that it doesn’t embody a deeper connection to its story.
Starting in January of 1938, George Hogg, then a British journalist, decides to visit China to capture images of the war. While there, he slowly learns how absolutely vile and ruthless the Japanese are to the Chinese, so he stays to help the Chinese defend themselves. He befriends several people with pull in the Communist Party, allowing him to provide aid for the country he is fighting alongside. Eventually, Hogg relocates to Shaanxi in northwest China. It’s there that he meets the 60 orphaned boys who live without food, beds, and electricity.
Initially, none of the boys take a liking to him, as they’d become accustomed to their living conditions. The thought of someone coming in and changing their routine bothers them. One boy in particular, Shi-Kai (played by Guang Li), doesn’t like Hogg’s mere presence. Shi-Kai, who saw the death of his parents during the war, doesn’t want anyone telling him how to do things. He believes with his family gone, he’s in charge. In fact, Hogg’s arrival leads to Shi-Kai gathering several of the other boys together to enact something akin to ‘Lord of the Flies’ — beating him to prove their system doesn’t need fixing.
After this, Hogg realizes how deeply troubled some of these boys are, and how their circumstances aren’t going to improve. Thereafter, he befriends a nurse named Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell) who helps bring food to the facility, as well as secure medicine to rid the boys of lice, all while still helping soldiers on the front line.
It’s this connection that spurs change. While their little society is on the mend with proper food and medicine, Hogg is able to get to work on other aspects, turning one area of the facility into a dormitory, another into a classroom, all while starting a garden, and building a basketball court.
Then, the National Army for the Republic of China comes seeking additional reinforcements. Since not all kids were of fighting age, the few that were—or were even close—China takes. Hogg defends his kids and is eventually arrested. But, with his connections, he gets out of jail and decides it’s time to get these boys out of Shaanxi.
Even with such a compelling story, the film stumbles. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers‘ lackluster portrayal of Hogg isn’t convincing. Radha Mitchell fares better as Lee Pearson, and Chow Yun-Fat is excellent as Chen Hansheng, a Chinese sociologist. With every scene, Yun-Fat’s performance imbues the story with empathy. Nevertheless, The Children of Huang Shi is so uneven, the whole piece is nearly scuttled, which is a shame, since this little known story of a man who sacrifices everything to help his country is an important chapter in China’s history.
Despite some miscasting, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition of The Children of Huang Shi is worth the watch. The bewitching beauty of Zhao Xiaoding’s cinematography pairs well with David Hirschfelder’s haunting score, rescuing an otherwise problematic rendering.