Reluctant though I am to carp about any director who has devoted chunks of his career to bringing the nonwhite world's suffering to Western attention, Roger Spottiswoode's The Children of Huang Shi — a drama based on the life of an Englishman who saved an orphanage full of boys from Japanese invaders and Chinese nationalists in the 1930s — is a tale as ploddingly familiar as it is good-looking and worth telling.
Spottiswoode is hardly alone in distilling a distant country's pain into the story of one white Westerner, armed with a similarly pale romantic interest and wry native sidekick, making a difference while world history rages around him. Just about every current Hollywood film set in Africa — including Spottiswoode's largely unnecessary 2007 fictionalization of the gripping documentary Shake Hands with the Devil — squeezes global conflict into the same fossilized frame.
Personally, I'd rather have a bad movie that distracts Americans from their navels for a moment than none at all. But even by the tainted standards of subconsciously imperial storytelling, The Children of Huang Shi has much less going for it than, say, Spottiswoode's 1983 thriller Under Fire. There, the Nicaraguan revolution played second fiddle to one journalist's odyssey from iconoclastic ambition to love and commitment. But Nick Nolte was a seasoned actor and a plausible world-weary cynic, not a baby star thrust into the limelight for the sake of the marquee. In The Children of Huang Shi, Jonathan Rhys Meyers isn't terrible as George Hogg, a naive young Brit hungry for adventure who passes himself off as a foreign correspondent just as the Japanese take over Shanghai. He's just terribly incongruous: a 21st-century Irish heartthrob with hair barely tamped down from its trendy coxcomb, overcooking the Oxbridge accent of an early-20th-century toff who gets in over his head when the Japanese capture him on the road to Nanjing.
Saved from summary execution by a big name in a minor role — Chow Yun Fat, hogging the light relief as a Chinese guerrilla who enjoys blowing stuff up — Hogg is further redeemed, this time from his own self-regard, by Lee Pearson (stoutly played by Radha Mitchell), a self-appointed American nurse. Lee dumps him at a barely functioning orphanage, where, after a brief sulk, Hogg has the time of his life planting veggies; fending off lice, Japanese imperialists, and Chinese nationalists; and finally fleeing with the boys along the unforgiving Silk Road, all while discovering his own better self.
If only because far-flung meltdowns tend to attract troubled souls escaping normal life only to find their higher calling in crisis, the characters here ought to be worth developing. But James MacManus, a former foreign correspondent for The Guardian who wrote the article on which the movie is based, may be a better journalist than he is a screenwriter. Together with co-writer Jane Hawksley, his idea of psychological complexity is to give every character innate nobility plus a human flaw to work through, while sprinkling the expository dialogue with Moments of Saving Humor, from which the director continually cuts away to lovely but ravaged scenery, beautifully shot by House of Flying Daggers cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding.
Like so many cookie-cutter international dramas of its kind, The Children of Huang Shi is a work from the heart hobbled at the get-go by anxieties — some of them well-founded — that no one will finance, release, or show up for such earnest material without recognizable stars under the age of 35, regularly paced explosions, and the usual narrative arc curving from despair to slim ray of hope. But the fact that the film's freshest and most moving words come from the surviving children of Huang Shi, their lined old faces projected over the end credits as they remember their rescuer with fond gratitude, suggests we'd be better off watching Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman's excellent 2007 documentary, Nanking, about Japan's invasion of China.