The Children of Huang Shi (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

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film_huang_sm.jpgDespite the entirely conventional nature of the script, Spottiswoode seems not to trust the audience to get it.








The events portrayed in The Children of Huang Shi frequently stagger the imagination, which is probably why director Roger Spottiswoode chose to open the film with a title card informing you that it is based on a true story. And so it is: There really was a British reporter named George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys-Myers) from a famous pacifist family who insinuated himself into war-torn China in 1937. He did assume responsibility for an orphanage, and when the children's survival was threatened by both the advancing Japanese army and Nationalist Chinese soldiers, he led them to safety on a 700-mile journey over the mountains and across the desert.

Hogg even died of tetanus as he does in the film, although the cause was not an injury incurred during the perilous journey but a stubbed toe from a basketball game several years later. But that wouldn't be nearly heroic enough, which underlines the basic problem with The Children of Huang Shi; a story which should be more than interesting enough on its own merits is buried under so many Hollywood clichés that it distances the viewer from what would otherwise be an emotionally involving film.

The script seems to have been cobbled together after consultation from Roger Ebert's Little Movie Glossary, which is helpfully subtitled A Compendium of Movie Cliches, Stereotypes, Obligatory Scenes, Hackneyed Formulas, Shopworn Conventions and Outdated Archetypes. Nothing in this film is subtle or unexpected, and even the hero's several near-death experiences create no real tension because The Children of Huang Shi is set not in the China of 1937 but in the timeless land of Hollywood clichés, where high-priced stars are never killed off early in a film. It doesn't help that the dialogue is relentlessly clunky; the characters frequently seem to be quoting slightly mistranslated proverbs to each other rather than engaging in normal human interaction.

The cast is strong but they can't overcome the limitations of the script. Radha Mitchell does the best she can as a nurse and old China hand who supplies Chekhov's gun by giving Hogg a brief lecture on tetanus early in the film. Chow Yun-Fat is underused but admirable as a Communist partisan (although the script requires him to inexplicably defer to the inexperienced Hogg for no apparent reason but his skin color), and Michelle Yeoh has several nice turns as a local merchant who sells more than seeds and silk. But this film should really have been called The George Hogg Story, since the war, the orphans and everything else are really background elements subordinate to his heroicized story.

Despite the entirely conventional nature of the script, Spottiswoode seems not to trust the audience to get it; an overbearing soundtrack announces the emotional import of every scene. Similarly, he's not content to show a mass execution from Hogg's somewhat distant point of view; he has to move in for a slow-motion close-up as well.

It's unfortunate that The Children of Huang Shi is so disappointing. because it's the first official co-production between China and Australia and was largely shot in China, incorporating many stunning shots of the Chinese countryside. But even the technical elements are often subpar; some of the intimate scenes in particular are neither properly lit nor focused. Pacing and continuity are also a mess; it's often unclear how much time has passed between scenes, and many of them end oddly, as if they were trimmed in a desperate attempt to cut the running time (officially 114 minutes, but it seems longer). | Sarah Boslaugh

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