Sadly, Judge Clark Douglas has never saved any Chinese orphans.
Based on the remarkable true story.
"We need to help these children."
Facts of the Case
The year is 1937, and the world is a rather turbulent place. China and Japan are in the middle of a complicated and violent conflict, and numerous journalists from all over the world are attempting to make their way into particularly troubled areas of China in order to cover the undeclared war. One of these journalists is George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Match Point), the son of high-profile British pacifists. George has similarly passionate feelings about the war, but is shaken when he witnesses a brutal public execution. Due to a brief moment of poor decision-making, George is nearly taken out in the exact same manner, but is rescued at the last minute by Chen (Chow Yun-fat, Anna and the King), a skillfully trained Chinese Nationalist.
Chen finds a somewhat safe place for George to stay, and introduces him to Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell, Melinda and Melinda), a British doctor. Lee spends a large portion of her time assisting the 60 residents of a boy's orphanage, and George is quickly encouraged to help out. Initially, George is hesitant about taking a break from war coverage to help out some kids, but he quickly has a change of heart. Before long, George begins to develop a deep compassion for these children, and increasingly dangerous circumstances force him to make a big decision. In order to get the orphans to safety, George determines that he will need to lead them on a 500-mile journey across snow-covered mountains. How many will survive such an arduous trip?
I'm rather sad when I have to write a review like this. No, not because The Children of Huang Shi left me depressed and deflated. Nay, The Children of Huang Shi mostly gives off the vibe of being an inspirational film. Like George Hogg, the film has a very good heart and nothing but the best of intentions. Unfortunately, the film frequently allows it's good intentions to translate into conventional banality. The story is told in a rather simplistic manner, and though it's a particularly fascinating true story, it somehow feels like something we've seen before.
The film runs just over two hours, which is completely unnecessary. This is one of the most thoroughly-padded historical epics I've seen, featuring much-longer-than-usual shots of people walking from place to place while David Hirschfelder's lovely music swoons. The Children of Huang Shi could have easily been cut down to 90 minutes, which undoubtedly would have made it much more effective. With the pacing that is currently in place, the viewer quickly leaps ahead of the film in their mind. We've all ready jumped ahead to the next step, and we sit there waiting for the film to catch up. The film fails to bring any real surprises to the table, making the jumping-ahead process quite easy.
On a financial level, the film was something of a massive failure. The film cost $40 million to make, and only managed to scrounge up a measly $1 million at the box office. It's easy to see why this happened. First of all, the rating is absolutely wrong. The film's tone is genial and family-friendly, pitched at about the level of a Hallmark movie. The simplicity of the screenplay suggests that the film might be best-suited to older children, but the R rating prevents that. Very brief scenes of just-barely-too-graphic violence take what would have undoubtedly been a PG-rated film into R-rated territory. Thirty seconds of editing would have broadened the potential audience considerably. Additionally, the title should have been changed. Honestly, The Children of Huang Shi doesn't exactly sound very interesting, does it? Why not call it 500 Miles to Freedom or some such thing?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers has demonstrated on numerous occasions that he can be a very interesting actor, but here can't seem to find anything interesting to do with George Hogg. During the scenes in which Hogg is shocked by the tragedy he sees around him, Meyers' open-mouthed reactions seem almost unintentionally funny. We keep expecting the character to become more interesting as the layers are peeled back, but the film is far too concerned with immortalizing this English Savior of China. Without a strong central character to carry the film through mundane moments, The Children of Huang Shi has a difficult time sustaining interest on a regular basis.
The transfer is okay, but rather underwhelming considering the visual sweep of the thing. The level of detail here was somewhat disappointing, and blacks aren't quite as deep as I'd like them to be. This a film that should look splendid, but instead it seems a bit lackluster. On the other hand, the audio is mostly quite solid. David Hirschfelder's score sounds just gorgeous here, and is well-distributed throughout the film. My only concern is that a few early scenes permit sound design to overwhelm the dialogue. The only supplement included on the DVD is a typical making-of featurette that covers the usual bases.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film may not be engaging or informative enough to be worth recommending, but some fine supporting performances make the movie easy enough to sit through. The best comes from Radha Mitchell as the doctor, who proves to be the only character in the film who has more complexity than we expect. It's a shame that such a good turn is buried in a movie that no one will see. I was also caught off guard by just how charming Chow Yun-fat was here, creating easily the most likable character in the film. The always-reliable Michelle Yeoh (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) also has a brief but memorable turn as a high-society woman who decides to help Hogg and the children.
I'd like to recommend The Children of Huang Shi, but it just doesn't feel like a particularly worthwhile way to spend two hours. At best, this one only merits a rental.
Guilty of turning a fascinating story into a rather mundane film. Court is
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