The Children of Huang Shi
The Children of Huang Shi is a bit of an odd duck for a summer release—a thoughtful, true-life historical drama tucked conspicuously into a season of explosions, guns, computer generated monsters and invincible superheroes. That it will be lost among the thunderous cacophony is a foregone conclusion. That it deserves to be is, perhaps, the only surprise.
George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a young, wet-behind-the-ears British reporter who sees his big break when the Japanese invade China in 1937, brutally subduing the population. Managing to get behind enemy lines, he begins documenting the apocalyptic destruction of the city of Nanking and the mass execution of its residents. It isn't long before George is captured. At just the moment when it appears his head is to be separated from his body, the cavalry appears in the form of Chen (Chow Yun-Fat) and his fellow communist insurgents.
Chen, an engineer whose expertise is in constructing buildings, now finds himself blowing them up to prevent their use by the Japanese. He introduces George to Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell), an American Red Cross medical worker who suggests George hide out in a children's orphanage in the rural village of Huang Shi to recover from wounds he's incurred.
The disinclined George finally acquiesces to her suggestion, but, upon arrival, finds the community in tatters. The boys, whose only adult supervision is a harried cook, have reverted to an almost feral state, more savages than children. George's presence is greeted with hostility, especially by the orphanage's alpha male, Shi-kai (Guang Li), who does everything he can to make George's stay intolerable. George perseveres and gradually begins winning the children's trust. As he adjusts to his surroundings, they adjust to him, and before long the orphanage becomes a place of laughter and love.
Their idyllic community is threatened when Chinese nationalist troops reveal that the Japanese are drawing near. The immediate threat is not from the Japanese, however, but from the nationalists who wish to conscript the young boys into their army. To prevent this from occurring, George and Lee gather the children together and flee during the middle of the night, setting out on what will become an arduous 600-mile journey through China's vast interior toward the remote Gobi desert where neither the Japanese nor the Chinese resistance can find them.
The Children of Huang Shi is apparently being heavily promoted in China, and no surprise: the film highlights an important and largely ignored (by the West) segment of China's history and one for which the wounds are still remarkably fresh. Somewhere between 20 to 30 million Chinese died at the hands of the Japanese invaders between 1937 and 1945, creating a degree of animosity between the two countries that persists to this day.
Children is the latest in a long line of films dealing with a Westerner injected into an exotic, foreign land with which he falls and love and is called upon to save, including Dances With Wolves, The Painted Veil, The Last Samurai, and director Roger Spottiswoode's own Shake Hands With the Devil. Popular templates, they nonetheless create troubling questions of nationalism, xenophobia, identity and colonialism, even when, as with Huang Shi, they are based on fact. All too often, these films, good as some may be, present the glamorous white man as the only person smart, brave or resourceful enough to rescue nonwhite innocents incapable of saving themselves.