With stately cinematography, period piece detail, and a true-life tale that mixes historical conflict and doomed romance, The Children of Huang Shi has all the ingredients for a stirring epic. Yet the resultant concoction of wartime heroism and loss seems to have been cooked in a cinematic Easy Bake Oven, blending its familiar elements with uninspired clunkiness. Director Roger Spottiswoode's film offers a functional retelling of the life of George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an English reporter who in 1937 sneaked into Japanese-controlled Nanjing, China and, with the aid of colorful communist rebel Chen Hansheng (Chow Yun-Fat) and brave nurse Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell), cared for - and then led to safety across hundreds of mountainous miles - a school of orphaned children. A tale of sacrifice and courage embroidered with sweeping vistas of early 20th-century China and shiny shots of Mitchell's long, flowing blonde locks, it's a TV movie in disguise, a handsomely staid affair that prefers skin-deep elegance to psychological or historical substance, moving from regal panorama to gallant speechifying to dewy-eyed amour with metronomic predictability.
Huang Shi's schematism is apparent from the outset, in which a recap of Japan's ongoing occupation of China is provided via dialogue between Hogg and a fellow reporter that's so bullet-point compact, their back-and-forth comments feel directed not at each other but at the audience. Through some careful maneuvering, Hogg sneaks into no-guests-allowed Nanjing, where he watches the Japanese army mow down citizens (women and children included) in a town square, and is shortly thereafter captured with incriminating photos of the executions. Just as a samurai sword is about to remove his head from his shoulders, Hogg is rescued by Hansheng, and after some mechanical firefights, sets off into China's heart of darkness, where he soon finds an orphanage of sixty young boys who are being cared for by an elderly woman. He stays the night, is almost beaten to death by the kids before Pearson arrives to save his hide, and is then convinced the next morning that, despite his desire to document the ongoing war for the public at large, the children - pint-sized encapsulations of the war's collateral damage - desperately need his help.
The ensuing drama is of a rote sort, as Hogg restores the dilapidated orphanage, teaches English classes, and earns the trust and respect of both his young charges - except for an older boy wracked by bitterness over the murder of his parents - and Pearson. Montages of work and play, a demure love scene, Hogg's dealings with a benevolent and wealthy merchant (Michelle Yeoh) and some romantic tension between Hogg and Hansheng (who once dated Pearson) all factor into Jane Hawksley and James MacManus' script. What doesn't, unfortunately, is a sense of who their protagonist is and, specifically, what drives his sudden, monumental altruism. Throughout, Hogg's actions appear motivated less by personal impulses than by basic plot dictates, his kindness, anger and boldness materializing when necessary but not bound by a concrete conception of his personality or beliefs. Rhys Meyers' bland performance is in large part a failure attributable to the film's screenwriters, who seek simplified emotion and conflict as a means of condensing an apparently complex figure into a clear-cut hero fit for a heartwarming biopic.
Pearson and Hansheng are similarly two-dimensional, yet more troubling than the schematic depiction of its characters is Huang Shi's rather perfunctory treatment of Hogg's renowned evacuation of the kids in his care. With the Japanese army poised to commandeer the orphanage, Hogg covertly gathers supplies and sets out along the Silk Road, a mountainous journey of over 700 miles that should serve as the grand climax of Hogg's surrogate-parent undertaking, but comes off as merely another chapter in his life. Aside from a few sequences that seem to have been hastily edited together, Spottiswoode's film boasts serviceable Merchant Ivory aesthetics, conventional narrative peaks and valleys, and dialogue that keeps every subtextual issue at the forefront. Eventually lacking in considerable measure, however, is depth of character, situation and sentiment, the absence of which is piercingly felt during an end-credits coda in which some of the boys Hogg rescued recount the life-affirming legacy of a man whose greatness, alas, is never adequately conveyed by this story.