There's a sort of family ritual that my dad and I undertake every time he drives over from Oregon to see me. Right about noontime, he'll call and tell me, "I'm six and a half hours away—what's playing tonight?" I'll grumble indistinctly about "evening commitments," then open the paper to the movie listings and the great debate begins. You see, my father and I love spending time together, and we both are huge cinemaphiles, but we have drastically different ideas of what constitutes entertainment. I won't watch movies with "the Rock" or Julia Roberts, and my dad falls asleep during anything with subtitles. What seems to fit the bill for both of us, improbably, are historical or biographical films. We both assume that we are indulging in a classier sort of flick while receiving a bit of education. That's what makes films like The Children of Huang Shi such a disappointment.
There's an irritating trend in filmmaking that has become more prevalent in the last 15 years or so. It seems any time I go see a film, there will be at least one preview that assures me that the movie it is advertising is "inspired by true events." Which is great, except that the events that are so inspiring rarely are filmed with any sense of what actually happened. Rather than presenting an accurate picture of reality, filmmakers far too often opt to use an event or person as a rough outline in order to tell a completely different story. It might be laziness or writer's block or simply an indifference to the idea of accuracy and truth (although I'm guessing many Hollywood studios push for more dramatic or satisfying stories), but it's become increasingly difficult to weed out the fact from the fiction in these films. The same Wisconsin farmer inspired the characters from Psycho, Silence of the Lambs and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, although only Massacre makes the laughable claim that it was "based on a true incident." As no factual rating is ever applied to these films, the viewer is left to decide what differentiates "inspired" from "based," "actual" from "true" or "real," and "events" from "story." Makes for a whole lotta extra reading up if you want to really be educated about the subject.
The Children of Huang Shi is loosely based on the life of George Hogg (overplayed by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), the English adventurer who snuck into Nanjing, China, in the early days of World War II for a two-day excursion, and ended up staying until his death seven years later. After sustaining a wound while watching Japanese soldiers commit unspeakable atrocities on the Chinese population, he is sent to recuperate at an orphanage in Huang Shi, where he is put in charge of 60 boys, only one of whom speaks English. While the real George Hogg participated in guerilla raids with Chinese nationalists, this fictional Hogg is a self-proclaimed hereditary pacifist, and his gentle nature is what attracts pretty nurse Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell). As one of the few medics in the area, she must constantly leave Hogg alone with the boys for extended periods of time, during which he erects a basketball hoop, plants a garden, and does various other tasks that are supposed to make us believe he's a good caretaker. The brightest spots during these plodding stretches in the film are his few visits to Madame Wang, the rich widow who struggles to keep her house fed by peddling vegetable seeds and opium. Michelle Yeoh has become one of the most recognizable faces in Chinese cinema, and with good reason. Her grace and charm shine through the tired material she is given to work with, and her depiction of Madame Wang is compelling enough to warrant a film of her own. Eventually, the military situation becomes too dangerous, and Hogg and Pearson decide to lead to boys on a several-hundred-mile journey to safety.
While the film is supposed to be about the hardship of the journey and the blooming relationship between Hogg and Lee, neither story is particularly compelling. Rhys Meyers is usually a fine actor, but here, he plays Hogg as though he is ticking off a checklist in his head: say line, smile ruefully, look off into the unfathomable distances. Mitchell, who like Rhys Meyers has done better work in Woody Allen films, fares a little better, but her character is one of convenience, given nothing better to do than turn up during pivotal moments, make pretty love and harbor dark secrets. The people who should be the focus of the film are the children of the title, but they, too, are merely used only to redirect our attention back to Hogg. It's a shame that this film is hampered so much by clunky acting and bad dialogue (please, somebody, give these writers a synonym for the word "brave") because such heroic stories are worth telling if they are told truthfully. Both the fact that more than eight years has gone into its development and that three different countries who represented opposite sides of the war it pictures worked together to produce it makes the outcome all the more tragic.
The trouble with The Children of Huang Shi is made apparent by producer Wieland Shulz-Keil. "I immediately liked the story ..." he says in the film's production notes, "because in the background there is a historical event, in the foreground there's a love story then somewhere in the middle are the children led on a journey by this one incredible man." Director Roger Spottiswoode, who is best known for such high-minded work as Turner and Hooch and Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, appears to share this typical Hollywood thinking toward historical events. Heighten an improbable but photogenic affair between two gorgeous people, round up a few dozen Chinese orphans for sentimental appeal, then attempt to legitimize the film's believability by packaging it as a true story. This treatment, although not really forgivable, can still make for an entertaining movie, but unfortunately that isn't the case here. Neither truly educational, nor particularly classy, my pop and I will probably give this one a pass. After all, Get Smart is playing tonight and Anne Hathaway cancels out any evil Dwayne Johnson karma.