The Children of Huang Shi (a.k.a. Escape From Huang Shi) deserves respect. Or at least, the story behind it does. This China-Australia-Germany co-production relates the true-life tale of George Hogg, a British adventurer in China who founded a school for wayward boys during the Second Sino-Japanese War. In 1944, Hogg took the boys on a 600+ mile trek along the Silk Road in order to keep them from being killed or conscripted into the ongoing conflict, eventually establishing a new school for them in the remote Shandan area. Obviously, Hogg and his accomplishments should be given their due.
However, giving the film its due is difficult because it's really not very good. Jonathan Rhys Myers (Match Point) stars as Hogg, portrayed in the film as a scoop-hungry photojournalist who works his way to Nanking after its infamous fall. There, he witnesses terrible human atrocities, sees his friends executed, and almost gets killed himself. However, he's saved by Jack Chen (Chow Yun-Fat, in his latest unchallenging role), a Communist government agent who possesses suave charisma rivaling the Roger Moore edition of James Bond. Chen provides welcome exposition on the conflict between the Communist and the Nationalist Chinese, while also explaining to Hogg what the two groups are doing to ward off the Japanese. Since he's played by Chow Yun-Fat, he's also quite cool, though Chow's performance flirts with the term "phoned in".
Hogg is injured in an escape from the Japanese, and Chen suggests that Hogg recuperate in a place called Huang Shi. Hogg expects some kind of sanctuary, but instead finds an empty, rundown estate full of orphaned boys, who are mischievous, lice-ridden, and obviously headed for nowhere. Hogg eventually discovers that Chen conspired with Red Cross nurse Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell) to send Hogg to Huang Shi, where they intend for him to give the boys care and purpose. Hogg totally disagrees with their plans for about ten minutes, which is enough time for him to pack up, leave Huang Shi, and then instantly change his mind. He returns just in time to fix the generator, clean up the manor, befriend the boys, and generally act like the modern day saint that George Hogg is described to be. About now would be a good time for some high-fives.
Jonathan Rhys Myers is earnest and enthusiastic in the lead role, but Hogg comes off as far too perfect to be a truly compelling figure. Other than his brief flirtation with abandoning the boys, he's righteous and lacks conflict, and seemingly possesses the patience to deal with the flaws and doubts of everyone around him. Besides the kids, Lee Pearson, and Jack Chen, Hogg also charms Mrs. Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a black market trader who deals in opium and other valuable commodities. Wang isn't much of a character either, but she serves her purpose, as Huang Shi is as manufactured and commercial as a based-on-true-life story could possibly be. This is a film about finding hope in the face of hopelessness, and it turns real life characters and situations into clichéd narrative staples in order to achieve that. The Children of Huang Shi is well meaning, but so obvious and that it becomes pandering.
Director Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies) should shoulder some blame. Huang Shi is competently produced, boasting good production values and an air of studio quality. However, the film has a simplistic narrative and the characters and events fulfill their expected purpose so efficiently that one can almost imagine the filmmakers crossing off a checklist of audience-baiting requirements. The screenplay is ham-handed and full of shortcuts, playing loose with actual events in order to up the inspirational drama factor. Admittedly, it was probably tough for Spottiswoode to make a true biopic, as the filmmakers are obviously so reverent of Hogg that true complexity was likely an impossibility. The end credits features interviews with some of Hogg's "children", now grown up and remembering their benefactor fondly. One even describes him as a near-perfect man who didn't possess a single flaw. Their love for Hogg is noted, and their idealized vision easy to respect. But Jonathan Rhys Myers' George Hogg seems like just a movie character, and The Children of Huang Shi like just another movie. Given its subject matter, it should probably be more.