The Children of Huang Shi Movie Review

Roger Spottiswoode's limp The Children of Huang Shi sounds, looks, and feels like a chapter torn from a dusty history textbook that was relevant somewhere in the mid-1960s. Every revelation feels like a lesson being thrust upon the viewer, every character a simple metaphor for their nationality's opinion toward (and hand in) the Japanese occupation of China that culminated in the Rape of Nanking in the winter of 1937. Here, the Chinese were honorable soldiers from a conflicted country, the Japanese were buffoonish barbarians who still took their shirt off before they decapitated people, the British were naive and in way over their heads, and the Americans just wanted to get married.

As the film's pre-script enlightens us, Children follows the life of George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Davies), a British journalist who steals the identity of a Red Cross worker to sneak into Nanking and get the story and the pictures of the massacres. After being captured, he almost meets the business-end of Tokyo steel before Hansheng (Chow Yun-Fat, not having fun with a mostly-American dialect), a resistance fighter, saves him from the blade. Hansheng sends Hogg off to the titular village, which serves as a sort of city for lost children, held in check by Dr. Pearson (Radha Mitchell), an actual Red Cross medic.

Romance stirs between the doctor and Hogg, Hansheng and the resistance flare up when the children are attacked, and the healthy 1930s Chinese drug trade is partially evoked through the wealthy merchant Mrs. Wang (Michelle Yeoh). The meat and potatoes of this is fascinating history, but the audience can't be roused to care. Blame Spottiswoode: The film is all schematics. The narrative's scaffolding, infrastructure, and engineering are so blatantly on display that any action or character development that might have engaged the viewer in a more fluid, elegant film is absent. It's all ably shot but there's no heat, no complexity. It's a cold, dry movie with all the taste of water and white bread.

Most unfortunate of these grievances is the casting of Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Hogg. Though he's nothing short of magisterial in Showtime's The Tudors, Meyers has taken the excitement from his excellent performance in Woody Allen's Match Point and wrung it dry in performances that accentuate his looks over his physicality and delivery. Here, his chiseled, bony face and wide eyes are used only as a barometer for Hogg's nervosa. It's a miserable waste of talent. This goes double for Yun-Fat, the erstwhile paradigm of Eastern gravitas who has traded all the craftsmanship of his work with John Woo and 2000's graceful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for this sort of mundane mediocrity. If Mitchell comes off better, it's only because she knows this role like her ZIP code and she looks good in a dress.

Getting his start with 1980's Terror Train, though he's probably best known as a Bond director (Tomorrow Never Dies), Spottiswoode hasn't so much proven himself a talentless director as a compulsively rigid one. With the exception of the childhood favorite Turner & Hooch, Spottiswoode has taken to a self-seriousness that borders on pathological, and it ultimately bruises Huang Shi's fluidity, though editor Geoffrey Lamb certainly has blood on his hands. What is left is history as drivel, rebellion as Sunday-morning hangover.

We don't need no stinkin' burros.

Cast & Crew

Comments

The Children of Huang Shi Rating

" Terrible "

Rating: NR, 2008

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