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Review: The Children of Huang Shi

Like an eager frequent flyer, Western paternalism changes destinations but not its baggage.

The Children of Huang Shi
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Like an eager frequent flyer, Western paternalism changes destinations but not its baggage. The Children of Huang Shi takes the good intentions and terrible methods of The Constant Gardener and Blood Diamond and takes them to China, where another traumatizing upheaval is whittled down to window-dressing for the personal romance and redemption of a couple of chalky-white stars. Business as usual for Roger Spottiswoode, who in the 1983 thriller Under Fire envisioned the Nicaraguan revolution as mere scrim on which a hotshot American reporter could get his shit together. The adventure-seeking outsider this time around is real-life British journalist George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who arrives in late-1930s China as invading Japanese forces plow the land, slaughtering everyone in their way. Summarily getting himself on the wrong side of an Imperial rifle in the Nanking occupation, Hogg is saved by Chen (Chow Yun-Fat in a glorified sidekick part), an explosives expert in the Chinese communist guerilla resistance, and taken to Huang Shi, the dilapidated yet somehow pastorally photogenic site of an abandoned orphanage for boys. He takes to cultivating the land and teaching locals how to repair broken machinery, but for all the lip service about finding yourself in another culture, Hogg is simply killing time before the return of Lee (Radha Mitchell), the diligent American nurse and mandatory Caucasian love interest whose presence further turns any historical events into wallpaper. The protagonist’s journalistic occupation—“You can tell the world what’s happening here,” Chen tells him, just like the African sacrificial lamb in The Last King of Scotland—is a wan attempt at hiding the fact that, with far more interesting perspectives available from Chow’s resistance fighter or Michelle Yeoh’s opium supplier, the decision to focus instead on a pair of pallid Western humanitarians boils down to racial preference and box-office priority. Spottiswoode concludes with moving footage of the surviving orphans remembering their savior, but in Children of Huang Shi colonialist condescension still has the final word.

Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Radha Mitchell, Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Li Guang, Ji Lin, Matt Walker, Anastasia Kolpakova, Su Ping Director: Roger Spottiswoode Screenwriter: Jane Hawksley, James MacManus Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 114 min Rating: R Year: 2008 Buy: Video

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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