The Children of Huang Shi
Jonathan, don’t think I won’t pull out my gun if you keep acting like this.

Theatrical Release Date: 05/23/2008
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Radha Mitchell, Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh

When you’re about to bring a remarkable story about saving orphans from conscription in the Chinese Nationalist army to the silver screen, you had better cast a lead that can handle the task. Confronted with a similar challenge, Steven Spielberg chose Liam Neeson for “Schindler’s List” and Terry George went with Don Cheadle in “Hotel Rwanda”.

When it came to “The Children of Huang Shi”, director Roger Spottiswoode went with … Jonathan Rhys Meyers? WTF?!? He couldn’t carry either Neeson or Cheadle’s jocks … let alone create a character with the same depth or complexity. This is the guy who plays the petulant man-child in every film he’s in, from “Bend It Like Beckham” to “Alexander” to “Match Point”. And his arrogant pout-filled “Tudors” turn doesn’t sway my opinion much either.

“Huang Shi” is based on the true story of George Hogg, a British journalist trying to cover 1937 war-torn China. Wounded, he is sent to an orphanage to recuperate and ends up changing the lives of the children and his own, as they navigate the dangerous times upon them.

At first, I was hopeful Meyers would pull off his performance. He seemed to have eaten a few sandwiches so he wasn’t as emaciated as normal. Then Hogg witnesses the Japanese massacre of a group of Chinese natives. And instantly, Meyers starts with the hammy over-acting and from there on out, he relies on two moves – getting angry and/or pouting.

Forced to march along with him (though not all literally) are Radha Mitchell as a drug-addicted nurse, Michelle Yeoh as an aristocratic merchant and Chow Yun-Fat playing a resistance fighter with a heart of gold. However, instead of being too much help, Mitchell comes off like a Lifetime movie and Yeoh and Yun-Fat have such stilted roles that I hope they at least got good craft services out of this deal.

On the plus side, the scenery in the film looks pretty good, the score was nice and the story itself is a compelling one. Probably the most interesting part of the film occurs once the credits roll, as some of the real orphans, still living today, get a chance to talk about the impact George Hogg had on their lives.

Really, this project would have been better off as a documentary and then the audience could have been spared the melodrama Meyers tends to bring to his roles. Spottiswoode also does very little to play up the tremendous amount of danger surrounding the orphanage. It felt more like they were in trouble of being evicted, rather than forced into military service and likely killed.

The entire production feels watered down and almost patronizing, as the good, white man saves the poor, endangered Asian children. Sure, it’s based on a true story and I wouldn’t begrudge the remarkable feat George Hogg accomplished.

But between a pasteurized presentation and multiple endings (at least 3 good stopping points), the production fell short of its potential and I can only give “The Children of Huang Shi” a 2 out of 5. It goes on for too long and even a recasting of Meyers would only be the first step in creating something truly memorable.