Saturday 24 January 2009

The Children of Huang Shi (2008)

The Children of Huang Shi suffers from an overly blunt script, stilted acting and a general failure to live up to the epic "Oh, the humanity!" vibe it seems to be striving for. It is, nevertheless, an enjoyable film that illuminates the previously-unknown amazing life story of English adventurer and journalist, George Hogg. In fact, so fascinating is his story that it's somewhat of a shame that the film about it is so... meh.

Heroes who accumulate orphans are always A+ at the PPCC.

The film begins with our hero, Hogg, twiddling his thumbs and ready to get into some action in war-torn Shanghai. With his friend, Barnes (David Wenham, in a brief cameo), he manages to get to Nanking, where there is rumor of fighting but a ban on journalists. Hogg, a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed fresh graduate from Oxford, exhibits much of the same characteristics as, well, a certain other famous Oxford grad who meddled in global affairs: he is entitled, over-educated, and clearly enamored with this foreign culture he now finds himself in. He is also in way over his head.

After witnessing the atrocities at Nanking, however, he is narrowly saved from a samurai blade to the neck by a charismatic underground Communist fighter, Chen Hansheng (Chow Yun-Fat). They team up for a bit, but Hansheng eventually sends Hogg up into the mountains - to "improve his Chinese" and with promise to bring him back for the front for more coverage. Little does Hogg know that he's been sent to take care of a rag-tag group of orphans. The rest of the film follows his slow transformation from reluctant care-taker to genuine hero, as he leads the orphans across an epic, thousand-mile trek into the Gobi Desert, safe from the oncoming Japanese forces. Along the way, a little romance is thrown into the mix as Hogg falls for the American nurse, Lee (Radha Mitchell).

Wartime China is still a relatively untold story from the Hollywood perspective - the only other films about it that we can think of, off hand, are Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, The Painted Veil with Edward Norton, and Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun. The Children of Huang Shi is, unfortunately, the worst of the lot - it has neither the provocative envelope-pushing of Lust, Caution, nor the sweeping epicness of Empire of the Sun, and its cinematography - which is beautiful - is still only as beautiful as the mind-blowingly gorgeous scenery (and music!) from The Painted Veil. Oh well.

Dreeeamy siiiigh, Chow Yun-Faaaat. We looooove yooooou. Marreeeeee us, pleeeeeease.

Some gorgeous scenery.

That's not to say it's a bad film - far from it. It was beautifully shot and the story was compelling and touching. The Chinese actors were particularly good - the children and especially the underused Chow Yun-Fat, who is always a welcome presence and, we should probably admit, the PPCC has a size-medium crush on. Michelle Yeoh also shows up at one point, playing a dethroned bourgeois madame, now reduced to selling opium to addicts.

An earnest performance by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, here in his thousand mile stare mode.

The romance, though? Meh.

In terms of film analytics, the most interesting thing we noticed was the power dynamics of the Hogg-Cheng-Lee love triangle. In particular, Cheng and Lee are both older, wiser and world-wearier than Hogg, so it was interesting to see how he could fit into their flinty cynicism. Cheng seems to hurtle from danger to danger, saved only by his fabulous good looks oozing charm and luck. Meanwhile, Lee is slowly chipped away at, so that her vulnerability is eventually revealed in all its shivering, detoxing awfulness. We had to commend the filmmaking for portraying things which might have become gratuitous or overwrought - Lee's addiction, the massacre at Nanking, an orphan's suicide - with a sensitive, straightforward touch. It made it all the more affecting.

The performances were decent, as we mentioned, though they were crippled by a script that did a lot of "WE ARE A BLOG AND WE WRITE MOVIE REVIEWS AND THIS IS WHAT WE DO"-type sentences. Awful, clunky exposition. The dialogues almost felt like something from an ancient 1950s play that no one had bothered to update. This is a shame , because Jonathan Rhys Meyers visibly gave it his all - the moment when Hogg is about to be beheaded was terrifying, and this was sans background score or cinematographical embellishment. It was all Rhys Meyers' work: his terror as he waits for the sword. Also, he learned a convincing amount of Mandarin for the role, and that's pretty awesome. It was nice to see the others - Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and David Wenham, even - though all their roles felt limited and constrictive.

Oh well, you might feel some light disappointment with this film - but not everything can be the glorious, transcendental Empire of the Sun. If you take this for what it is - a relatively simple film told against a much larger background - it should be fairly enjoyable. Like a nice cuppa with toast.


ajnabi said...

Jonathan Rhys Meyers is very pretty, but not pretty enough to make me want to be depressed. And Communist China tales are so often depressing.

ajnabi said...

Well, almost-Communist-China. But the real reason I came back was to add that OMG I have a Super-Sized crush on Chow Yun Fat. His appeal is both irresistible and inexplicable.

a ppcc representative said...

Yay! Chow Yun-Fat love club!

Siiiiiigh. Swooooooon.

eliza bennet said...

I really like Chow much better (as an actor) in his pre Hollywood days.

I'll give this a shot if it comes my way :)

a ppcc representative said...

Yeah, he's still getting typecast according to "ethnic" roles (Pirates of the Caribbean, arghh!). That said, he's getting handsomer and handsomer... the graying goatee KILLS ME.

I haven't seen much of his heroic bloodshed stuff - what do you recommend to fill the void?