July 11, 2008

The Children of Huang Shi: ?The Children of Huang Shi?

By Michael Smith, Tulsa World, Okla.

Jul. 11--If Steven Spielberg hadn't made a movie about the man, the public at large still wouldn't have the foggiest idea as to the identity or importance of Oskar Schindler's life-saving efforts at the close of World War II.

"The Children of Huang Shi" won't bring the same fame to George Hogg, but this good-natured drama is a worthwhile memorial to a little-known rescue of 60 innocent souls from a pre-World War II reign of terror.

The film begins in Japanese-occupied China in 1937, as troops have overrun the Chinese capital in the so-called "rape of Nanking." Citizens are facing execution squads, imprisonment or are abandoning their homes to escape the city.

For a neophyte journalist, however, this seeming birthplace of the next great war is the place to be.

Enter George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the young king in Showtime's "The Tudors," also seen in "Match Point" and "August Rush"), an Oxford-educated writer smart enough to find a way into a war-torn Nanking but not savvy enough to stay for long, as he witnesses a massacre and then is injured while escaping Japanese troops.

An operative in the Chinese resistance effort (played with a haughty flair by Chow Yun-Fat) sees value in George disseminating

his story of Nanking atrocities and directs him to the obscure mountain village of Huang Shi, home to dozens of boys orphaned by war, for convalescence and writing.

His welcome is less than enthusiastic from the teens who have ruled the younger boys at this bombed-out orphanage estate, but it's not long before George is rebuilding, both in the form of structural improvements and in the well-being of the boys, who apparently have only an old woman who cooks watching over them.

Screenwriter James MacManus, a journalist whose articles about Hogg's adventures led to the film, provides an authenticity to these events, making for an informed, energized and thoroughly watchable story, with colorful characters but little depth beyond surface emotions in this tense atmosphere.

What makes the film work is the hard-earned respect as well as humor that's achieved in the interaction between Rhys Meyers and his young co-stars. Their warm bond is never less than believable, especially so when troops approach the orphanage and a perilous trek through the Silk Road's snowy mountain terrain becomes the children's only escape.

Other characters are introduced as important players but never fleshed out enough to warrant the screen time they are given.

Yun-Fat's rebel keeps popping up for cameos of little import, and his "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" co-star Michelle Yeoh is given trite dialogue as a war widow stooping to any trade necessary to survive the war.

An Australian nurse (Rahda Mitchell of "Melinda and Melinda") who, like Hogg and the children, is looking for her own place in the world, is realized as a stock character -- tough-talking yet vulnerable and the obvious love interest -- from a 1950s foreign-based melodrama.

Director Roger Spottiswoode (best when making TV adaptations like HBO's "And the Band Played On" and "The Matthew Shepard Story," not so special with feature film dreck like "Stop or My Mom Will Shoot!" and "Tomorrow Never Dies") does his best to manage multiple subplots.

Stars: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Rahda Mitchell, Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh

Theaters: Southroads 20

Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

Rated: R (some disturbing and violent content)

Quality: *-- 1/2(on a scale of zero to four stars)

Michael Smith 581-8479 [email protected]


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