Opening today: The Children of Huang Shi

For all of its gorgeous production values, The Children of Huang Shi is held back by the stiff performance of its leading man Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tutors). His one-note, sort of upbeat, idealist portrayal of George Hogg, an English journalist who led tens of children out of Huang Shi to safety, only makes sense as the closing credits roll, and actual survivors of that group essentially describe him as a jovial Jesus.

His female counterpart, an American nurse, played by Radha Mitchell does far better with her material. This is not the Mitchell of Finding Neverland or Melinda and Melinda. There’s nothing refined or airbrushed about her; her masculine body language and rectangular face are contrasted only by her long, wavy, blonde locks. When she lets them down, anyway.

After nicking the papers of a Red Cross employee to gain access to the front lines of the unofficial war being fought between China and Japan in 1937, Hogg witnesses unutterable horrors, and nearly finds himself dead. A communist leader (in the form of Chow Yun Fat) who likes to blow things up, comes to Hogg’s aid and it is through him that Hogg gets caught up in the world of the children of Huang Shi.

Orphans of the unofficial war, the children are slow to embrace Hogg, the only adult in their midst — save an elderly, quite funny cook. Nevertheless, he becomes their teacher, far more invested in them then he had been in the writing assignment that brought him there.

Though I was watching a screener copy at home, I must say I was impressed with the Children of Huang Shi’s graphics — particularly the airplanes rendered to lay fire onto both buildings and unarmed peasants, merely trying to make their way to safety. The use of CGI is spare, an excellent decision as its coldness is a stark contrast to the warm landscape of the Chinese countryside, with its pools of water and uncannily shaped mountains.

This is certainly a film you could take your more mature children to see (I’m thinking 12 or 13); there are some scenes of war violence, but nothing too graphic, and nothing too out of the blue, so your instincts should tell you when eyes need covering. The Children of Huang Shi does fall into that “power of the human spirit” category that actually can be done right sometimes. You’d think that spirit is Hogg’s, but actually I would say the powerful spirits reside in the children, who, even after watching family members die, find it in themselves to keep on truckin’, each using their skills to keep their little commune-school running. I think they might be the best actors in the film, too. One child hangs his head and says more with his gesture than almost all of Rhys Meyer’s line readings.