Heroic 'Children of Huang Shi' undermined by hype

The Children of Huang Shi is a sentimental, old-fashioned and somewhat fictionalized view of World War II in China as seen through the eyes of one Briton who was there. If it doesn't measure up to the label "epic," it's still an engaging account of one man's journey through war and those circumstances that give meaning to the saying, "Heroes are made, not born."

George Hogg, as played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, was a naive young reporter who snuck into Nanking during the midst of the Japanese atrocities there, "the Rape of Nanking." Wounded, Hogg is rescued by communist intelligence agent Chen Hansheng ( Chow Yun-Fat, very cool) and no-nonsense do-gooder nurse Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell), who conspire to send him to a remote estate to recover.

That "estate" is an orphanage. And there are no adults in charge there. Hogg, who speaks little Chinese, must win the trust of the moppets and protect them from the chaos around them. Children, Nurse Pearson tells him, just require the basics.

"They need to be kept warm, safe, clean and fed. Manage any one of these and you're ahead of the game."

Hogg, sort of a casual journalist, now has a mission, a purpose in life. He will do whatever it takes to protect these shell-shocked orphaned boys from the Japanese and the conscription-minded communist and nationalist armies.

The movie's contrived love story/love triangle plays out awkwardly, as Hogg and Chen wonder if the loner Pearson will be their best girl. Despite breathtaking scenery and a terrific re-creation of the war in China, all teeming masses of refugees dogged and shot at by blackhearted Japanese, director Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies) never seems comfortable with the story's focus.

The script gives this an Old Hollywood feel, historically suspect, "orphans" who look like they just stepped out of a hair salon, and obvious foreshadowing and plot devices such as the sexy opium dealer with a heart (Michelle Yeoh) who helps Hogg feed his orphans.

Rhys Meyers, of Match Point and TV's The Tudors, demonstrates more of his somewhat dated style of presentational acting. He's all neck veins popping out in intense moments, pursed lips and moony eyes in romantic ones. His bland performance and the script make Hogg less complicated than he most certainly was. He's played as a pacifist hero but he is often described as an adventurer who took part in guerrilla attacks against the Japanese. The film and Rhys Meyers give the man no real arc, from idle adventure seeker to man of purpose and substance.

Mitchell, like Rhys Meyers, a Woody Allen vet (she starred in Melinda and Melinda as well as Silent Hill) hides her Aussie accent well. But as pretty and physically comfortable as she seems with the part, her line readings are consistently flat, hitting the wrong emphasis, robbing her dialogue of its pithiness and emotion.

"I don't have time for the problems of people who have no problems."

Still, it's a pleasant enough stroll through some pretty unpleasant history. Old school it may be, with a love story that not only doesn't stick but doesn't fit with the facts. But The Children of Huang Shi is a handsome film, with great production values and an emotional finale that doesn't feel like a cheat. And if this is all mainstream movies ever do with George Hogg, these children and the Rape of Nanking, at least it offers a glimpse of the real history the filmmakers were so eager to adorn with fake romance.