Profiles in courage

Director Roger Spottiswoode brings an untold story of atrocity and bravery into focus with the powerful 'The Children of Huang Shi'

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July 04, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun movie critic

Veterans sometimes say combat survivors give off a glow that protects them like an invisible shield. Jonathan Rhys Meyers radiates that glow until the final reel of The Children of Huang Shi, a terrific, fact-inspired moral adventure. Playing George Hogg, a British war correspondent who travels to China in 1937 to assess the looming Japanese occupation, Rhys Meyers pulls the audience into his clear-eyed gaze and compels us to see history afresh.

He may be a racy heartthrob as Henry VIII in Showtime's The Tudors, but in this role he possesses spiritual nobility.

When Hogg snaps pictures of a massacre during the rape of Nanking, he can barely look through his viewfinder. The director, Roger Spottiswoode, is a master at depicting tragedy from a point of view that draws us into human loss, rather than merely making us flinch at ugliness. He creates a harrowing kaleidoscope from Hogg's reaction to the atrocity and the photographs he uses to freeze it in time. In an age when digital tools bend real-life imagery, Spottiswoode reminds us of a camera's power to bear witness - or, in the case of his own movie, to bring underreported stories into history.

Spottiswoode's last great political feature, Under Fire (1983), was about a photojournalist provoked into a political act after seeing Somoza's brutal crackdown on Nicaraguan revolutionaries. In The Children of Huang Shi, Spottiswoode goes one step further: Selfless acts of courage transform Hogg into the sort of character other journalists write stories about. He throws himself into protecting and teaching 60 Chinese children at a remote orphanage at Huang Shi. When even that secluded spot grows perilous, he decides to lead them 700 miles over a rugged road to safety.

The Children of Huang Shi boasts physical sweep and emotions to match; it's an authentic epic made on location for $17 million (in Hollywood terms, chicken feed). No one practices classical storytelling as well as Spottiswoode, but the reason his best movies stay with you long after "the end" is that they embrace a modern viewpoint.

Hogg's choices don't come easily: every personal or political crisis in this film is split three ways. He must find his footing in a China that is splintering among nationalists, Communists and the Japanese invaders. Once he gives up journalism and commits to protecting three-score orphans, he discovers that he can support China profoundly without violating his Quaker-bred ideals.

Although his early protector, "Jack" Chen (Chow Yun-Fat), is a Communist engineer and soldier, Hogg doesn't pick up a gun and join his ranks. Instead, Hogg becomes a deft negotiator, especially when he trades with a clever Huang Shi merchant, Mrs. Wang (played with deep knowingness and dignity by Michelle Yeoh, who first acted for Spottiswoode in the Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies).

He soon learns that a heroic self-taught nurse, Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell), who treated him for wounds from Japanese bullets, was the one who suggested that Chen send Hogg to Huang Shi. There he recuperates, learns Chinese, and becomes orphanage headmaster by default. He teaches something of value to hungry and often traumatized youngsters.

For most of the movie, Chen, Pearson and Hogg form a platonic triangle: the Communist soldier and the nurse, one-time lovers, are content to be best friends. And while Pearson and Hogg strike sparks at first, they don't want to complicate their lives - or to unpack their psychological baggage. They become lovers only after they've witnessed each other's weaknesses and strengths in full; that's one of the most adult and moving aspects of the picture.

Mitchell (J.M. Barrie's wife in Finding Neverland) has never been more vivid, veracious or appealing than as a nurse who learns she can't hide or run away from her cravings and needs. And Yun-Fat evokes a warm, wise earthiness that's the perfect opposite to Rhys Meyers' visionary questing.

At the orphanage, three characters emerge to define the plight of the children: a driven student who inspires Hogg's belief that he can teach his pupils English; a cryptic farming lad who turns eloquent only when he instructs Hogg in the traditional rites of planting; and a scary-eyed hard case who appears to have walked out of Lord of the Flies.

The last one puts Hogg through a violent hazing that's almost as frightening as the Japanese assaults. Working with this many children would challenge most directors, and working with this many children who also speak a foreign language would utterly defeat them. But Spottiswoode captures them at their most expressive and spontaneous, and traces their individual fates with psychological acuity.

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