Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Chow Yun-Fat, left, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Zhu Jialei/Sony Pictures Classics

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Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
Produced by Arthur Cohn, Wieland Schulz-Keil, Peter Loehr, Jonathan Shteinman & Martin Hagemann
Written by James MacManus & Jane Hawksley
Director of Photography, Zhao Xiaoding
Edited by Geoff Lamb
Music by David Hirschfelder
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
English, Japanese & Mandarin with English subtitles
Australia/USA/China/Germany. 114 min. Rated R
With Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Radha Mitchell, Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh & Guang Li

In the remote town of Shandon on China’s Mongolian border, a statue was erected in the 1980s in memory of Englishman George Hogg, a rare salute to a foreigner. Curious, foreign correspondent James MacManus interviewed those who remembered Hogg, who arrived in a China wracked by invasion and civil war in 1937, and expanded his article into the “inspired by the life” screenplay for The Children of Huang Shi, as well as a book just published in Britain, Ocean Devil: The Life and Legend of George Hogg.

From the opening scenes of decadent Shanghai under Japanese control, again beautifully recreated (like in James Ivory’s The White Countess and Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution), this film initially seems like yet another story of a reckless white adventurer who finds redemption and purpose helping Third World unfortunates. George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), first seen as a cocky young journalist, brashly finagles his way into occupied Nanking. As his background is gradually revealed, he emerges more as an idealist from a noted pacifist family (a father jailed for protesting World War I and an aunt who befriended Gandhi).

Roger Spottiswoode is an experienced action director (Michelle Yeoh, in a small role here as a wily merchant, also starred in his James Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies), and the epic scenes of war, refugees, and civilian bombings are stunning. Demonstrations of Japanese atrocities in their “three all” campaign – kill all, burn all, destroy all – are vividly portrayed, but were actually even worse, as witnesses testified in Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s recent documentary Nanking.

After his thrillingly close escape, Hogg reluctantly agrees to supervise an abandoned orphanage in a northern province where the boys, suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, have turned it into a Lord of the Flies-like lair of bullies. While recalling Humphrey Bogart hiding out from the war in Edward Dmytryk’s The Left Hand of God, Hogg combines his Oxford training with his cooperative ideals to sort out the boys through charming scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in a Pearl Buck melodrama.

But as he gradually goes native, learning the language and dressing like the locals, he also builds their trust so that they accept his desperate proposal to save them from the encroaching war by taking them 700 miles along the legendary Silk Road. Despite a bitter winter, he leads the 60 boys on a 10-week hike across a mountain range as high as 16,000 feet to the western Gobi Desert. The boys’ miraculous trek is recreated against gorgeous scenery from snowy plateaus to sand storms and historic landmarks, with scary threats from nature and man.

In addition to Hogg’s touching relationships with the traumatized boys, there is a decorous romantic triangle that is a fictional amalgam from his friendships with communists and Commonwealth ex-pat sympathizers. Chow Yun-Fat, as Jack Chen, may be the most dashing Confucian Chinese Communist guerilla leader portrayed on film, always showing up in the nick of time (in a twist on Hollywood World War II movie clichés, his fluent English and radical politics are attributed to his West Point engineering education). As self-taught nurse Lee Pearson, with some similarities to a New Zealander Hogg knew, Australian actress Radha Mitchell’s accent wavers between American and British, but striding through battles and lovers, she well captures the tough, no nonsense Katherine Hepburn type of heroine who still manages to find silky lingerie, retain her lovely earrings, and hide a more contemporary secret.

The stiff dialogue strikes some awkward notes – Madame Wang (Yeoh), the opium dealer, warns the nurse not to leave Hogg lonely with all those boys. Chiang Kai-shek’s xenophobic Nationalists are shown as retreating conscripts of child soldiers, punishing addicts more than dealers, while Jack’s partisan carefully distinguishes between invaders and sincere allies like Hogg. But any cynicism about the script’s politics evaporates with the emotional Schindler’s List-like postscript of moving testimony about Hogg by elderly brothers grateful for how he saved their lives. Nora Lee Mandel
May 23, 2008



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