If good intentions produced good movies, "The Children of Huang Shi" would be a classic. It's a saga about a selfish man overcoming his base instincts and leading a band of orphans to safety across a war-ravaged landscape. Audiences tolerant of clichéd uplift may dab their eyes, but demanding moviegoers will look elsewhere.
The fact-based story stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers as George Hogg, a British reporter covering the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. Impersonating a Red Cross driver, he enters occupied Nanjing, where he photographs mass executions of civilians before the Japanese capture him. He's about to be executed when he's saved by rebel leader Chen Hansheng (Chow Yun-Fat).
George, who sees the war as an opportunity for headline-grabbing career advancement, asks to follow Chen to the front, but the Communist soldier insists that he recuperate and learn Mandarin. With the help of nurse Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell), George is set up in the unstaffed, ill-equipped Huang Shi orphanage for boys.
The kids are suspicious of the newcomer, but George repairs the facilities and supplies provisions with the help of Lee, black market queen Mrs. Wang (Michelle Yeoh) and some aggressive gardening. As Japanese forces near, and Chinese nationalist forces seize boys to serve as child soldiers, George bundles his 60 children and supplies onto mule-drawn carts and sets off for refuge in Sandhan, 700 miles across the Gobi Desert and over snow-shrouded mountains.
If the film had concentrated on the odyssey, which has dramatic incidents to spare, it could have been a rousing adventure instead of a hokey time-waster. But the heavy-handed script engineers a trite love triangle between Lee, Chen and George; director Roger Spottiswoode ladles sentimentality over the orphans like sweet plum sauce, and the selfish writer's evolution into a noble, committed father figure is too predictable and seamless to be believed.
The film ends with first-person testimonials from some of the surviving Huang Shi orphans that are more compelling than the semi-fictionalized film. Somewhere inside this unsatisfactory drama is a great documentary struggling to get out.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186