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Where EAST meets the Northwest

CHILDREN OF WAR. Michelle Yeoh (left) plays Mrs. Wang, a merchant trying to negotiate the difficult extremes of morality and wartime necessity, and Chow Yun-Fat plays Chen Hansheng, a West Point-trained army officer leading the outgunned Chinese resistance, in The Children of Huang Shi. (Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

From The Asian Reporter, V19, #8 (February 24, 2009), page 14 & 16.

Latest East-West collaboration a hit

The Children of Huang Shi

Directed by Roger Spottiswoode

Produced by Arthur Cohn, Wieland Schulz-Keil, Peter

Loehr, Jonathan Shteinman, and Martin Hagemann

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, 2009

DVD, 114 minutes, $28.96

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

The Japanese occupation of China in the late 1930s is a story not often told, partly because of the horrors and atrocities involved ó the mass slaughter of civilians in places such as Nanjing isnít a subject people like to dwell on. The other reason itís not well known is because the Japanese government maintained strict limitations on the press, which wasnít allowed to cover the occupation.

One reporter masqueraded as a Red Cross driver to cover the story anyway, but he encountered something he never expected to find in a war zone. The Children of Huang Shi tells how this man, a British reporter named George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), came to China as a curious journalist and left as the savior of an orphanage. The gripping, emotional film ó based on actual events ó is yet another cinematic collaboration between stars from the East and West, and there has never been a worthier tale for this cooperation.

Asian film stars Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh have appeared in many Hollywood films, but theyíre most often of the action-hero variety. Yun-Fat, one of director John Wooís favorite stars, has been in films such as The Replacement Killers (1998) and Bulletproof Monk (2003), while Yeoh built her considerable Hong Kong reputation into roles in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and alongside Yun-Fat in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2003).

In Children, they play Chinese citizens drawn into the conflict against the invading Japanese. Yun-Fat is Chen Hansheng, a West Point-trained army officer leading the outgunned Chinese resistance, and Yeoh plays Mrs. Wang, a merchant trying to negotiate the difficult extremes of morality and wartime necessity. Both end up helping Hogg in different ways.

Hansheng saves Hogg from certain death after he is caught photographing Japanese soldiers slaughtering civilians in Nanjing. Later, when Hogg is injured trying to reach the British consulate, Hansheng arranges for him to go to a safe haven near the city of Huang Shi to convalesce with the help of Chenís friend Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell), an Australian nurse.

Hogg initially believes the haven to be a school, but he soon finds it is a lawless orphanage filled with starving boys and one elderly cook. Nurse Pearson arrives to help him understand the war story he seeks is in Huang Shi, among the boys who desperately need a reason to live. As he accepts this growing challenge, Mrs. Wang offers her help by advancing him seed and other supplies, and the two quickly become friends.

Hogg builds the run-down institution into a comparative paradise, but the war soon intrudes. An orphanage full of so many healthy boys is a resource the depleted Chinese national army cannot ignore, and Hogg, Pearson, and Hansheng make a difficult decision. They arrange to transport all 60 boys more than 700 miles away, walking through the mountains and along the old Silk Road to the town of Shandan on the edge of the desert. The gruelling trek to their new home comprises the climax of the film, showing Hogg exactly how much he and his boys have grown.

Though Hogg is the dramatic focus of the story, all four principal actors and actresses balance their roles nicely, giving performances that are suitably subdued for a story that could wallow in sentimentality and melancholy. The cinematography is spectacular, whether in the dusty and dim hallways of the orphanage or the wide vistas of the Liu Pan Shan Mountains they must cross. And the boys offer fine ensemble performances, most notably the helpful Ching (Naihan Yang) and the irascible and war-hardened Shi-Kai (Guang Li).

As Hollywood learns how to incorporate Asian film stars like Yun-Fat and Yeoh, itís great to see them break out of the action flicks and costume dramas that have so often featured them. Hansheng is a soldier, but he is rarely shown on the battlefield, and Mrs. Wang transcends the wise-shopkeeper stereotype that the role first appears to be. The Children of Huang Shi is a worthy vehicle for two performers of their magnitude, as it takes a clear-eyed look at a horrific event in Asian history.

For all its apparent sentimentality and Hollywood sensibility, the film is no sugarcoated romp. It doesnít flinch in portraying the horrors of war, nor its ravages on the lives of the boys or the main characters. Parents may not want to allow their young children to watch it, but thatís about the only age group that wonít appreciate the fine craftsmanship of this winning film.

The Children of Huang Shi is now available on DVD from Sony Pictures Classics. To learn more, visit <www.sonyclassics.com/thechildrenofhuangshi>.