A decadent, exotic city, the brink of war, the sweep of history, a gang of scruffy urchins, the lips and eyes of Jonathan Rhys Meyers -- these are the main ingredients in Roger Spottiswoode's "The Children of Huang Shi," a small-scale, would-be epic about an inexperienced British journalist whose accidental arrival in Japanese-occupied Nanking leads to the heroic rescue of 60 Chinese orphans.
Based -- I have no idea how closely -- on a true story, the movie begins in the glittering Shanghai of the 1930s shortly before the Japanese invasion and ends thousands of miles away in the mountains of Liu Pan Shan on the edge of the Mongolian desert. Rhys Meyers plays George Hogg, a British journalist who sneaks into Nanking, where he witnesses the massacre of hundreds of civilians. Caught and nearly executed by the Japanese army, he is rescued by "Jack" Chen (Chow Yun-Fat), a dashing communist rebel. At first, Chen's idea is to send him home to "tell the world" what's happening in China, but an air raid puts an end to that. Instead, he decides to send Hogg to recover from his injuries in an abandoned orphanage inhabited by a gang of feral boys, though not before introducing him to his ex-lover Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell), a mysterious American nurse with a mysterious Australian accent. He's going to need someone to pine for on those drafty nights.
It's about here that the story takes a sharp turn from a somewhat exciting war drama about a neophyte in over his head to a cross between "Au Revoir les Enfants" and "The King and I." Aided by a local merchant, a shadowy aristocrat played by Michelle Yeoh, Hogg's careful, patient ministrations have a civilizing effect on the boys and before you know it they are learning English and growing tomatoes. Even the chilly and superior Lee can't help admiring what he's done with the place.
What of Hogg's journalistic aspirations? Vanished without a trace, you suppose, after a close encounter with what really matters. It's a bit of a letdown to see Rhys Meyers, so satisfying as the bad boy elsewhere, go from dumb and impetuous to placid and saintly. He was more fun when he was getting in trouble.
Mitchell is a bit of a cipher too -- whatever particular trouble in her clearly troubled past led her to take on the job of nursing a nation in flux are not explored in depth. Set apart from the crowd by her blondness and brusqueness, she has the air of an impatient grande dame who can't for the life of her understand why she is surrounded by such chaos. "Jack," meanwhile, is a West Point-educated communist -- thus the blue-eyed company.
Still, if you can get past the Eurocentric focus, there are worse ways to pass the time than to see "The Children of Huang Shi," if only because the glimpse into the time and place are captivating and the images are gorgeous. Cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding captures a world of beauty and turmoil (and those lips and eyes) so gloriously, it almost justifies the considerable running time.
"The Children of Huang Shi." MPAA rating: R for some disturbing and violent content. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes. In limited release.