Saturday, March 13, 2010

Produced and Abandoned: The Children of Huang Shi

It’s bad enough when good movies get dumped on DVD without first getting a theatrical release. But it’s even worse when the DVD release also gets ignored. (DVD reviewers often miss these films because they either don’t know they exist, or their editors don’t care enough to HAVE anyone know they exist.) Whatever the reason, The Children of Huang Shi certainly deserves a better fate than its remaindered status in the Blockbuster cut-out bin.

Based on the true story of George Hogg (Jonathan Ryhs-Meyers), a British photo journalist during the early days of the Japanese occupation of China in 1938, The Children of Huang Shi is about how an opportunistic journalist turns into a true humanitarian. After pretending to be a Red Cross aid worker (in order to sneak into Nanjing to get a big story), Hogg confronts horrific Japanese atrocities and gets captured after photographing them. He gets rescued by a Communist resistance fighter (Chow Yun-Fat) who arranges to have him sent to an orphanage in Huanghshi to assist Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell), the American nurse who is running it. While he’s initially reluctant to care for the 60 orphan boys living there (and they are alternately not too pleased to have him caring for them), he gains their respect by giving them the kind of attention they’d long given up hope of ever getting again.

Depicting a photo journalist who comes to terms with his role in life is not new to director Roger Spottiswoode, who earlier in his career made the satisfying produced-and-abandoned political drama Under Fire (1984). In that film, a contemporary story set in Nicaragua, a photo journalist (Nick Nolte) transforms himself from an objective observer into a committed activist while simultaneously examining the consequences of his actions. The Children of Huang Shi, however, doesn’t contain the same layered ironies that are woven into Under Fire. The dramatic arc of the picture is much more conventional. But the movie remains a beautifully directed piece of work. In particular, the period details, captured by cinematographer Zhào Xiaodīng (who also shot the luminous House of Flying Daggers), are done in deep pastel colours that enrich the narrative's fermenting intensity.

While Jonathan Rhys-Meyers has often been to acting what Rufus Wainwright is to singing (making every gesture a dramatic affectation), he does his least ostentatious performing on the screen yet. Radha Mitchell’s work as the nurse begins rather stiffly but she gradually comes to reveal how the relentless horror eats away at the idealistic zeal that once fueled this woman's work. Chow Yun-Fat has a small part but he demonstrates an abbundance of audience rapport. (His smile is as wide as the screen itself when he detonates buildings he knows will annoy the Japanese invaders.) Michelle Yeoh has an even tinier role as a woman who smuggles drugs to assist the children (and to aid a little habit the nurse has been nursing), yet she's striking in every scene carrying the weight of melancholy in her beautifully expressive face. There are a number of Chinese actors in the roles of the children and every one etches vivid portraits of how young promising lives can get reduced to basic survival. The Children of Huang Shi is the kind of movie that is profoundly moving without becoming self-consciously inspirational.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His upcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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