Barely remembered by his fellow countryman but revered to this day by the Chinese George Hogg was an Oxford-educated adventurer who led 60 war orphans on a 700-mile trek during the Japanese occupation of China to prevent them from falling into the hands of the advancing occupying forces. In director Roger Spottiswoode’s leisurely retelling of this heroic feat Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is introduced sneaking into Nanking in 1937 to report on the three-sided war between the Japanese Chinese Nationals and Chinese Communists. Upon his arrival Hogg witnesses Japanese soldiers execute hundreds in cold blood. With the aid of Communist resistance leader “Jack” Chen (Chow Yun-Fat) and Red Cross nurse Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell) an injured Hogg is taken to recuperate at a school in Huang Shi. Once better Hogg plans to tell the world what’s happening in China. But he takes such a shine to the orphans that he decides to stay as the school’s headmaster. Soon though news spreads that Japanese troops are marching toward Huang Shi. Hogg has no choice but to take the orphans on a months-long journey--with rough terrain and bitter weather ahead of them--to find a safe place to live and learn. Let’s ignore the fact that pretty-boy Rhys Meyers struts through the Second Sino-Japanese War looking more like a fashion-conscious playboy on vacation than a war correspondent dodging bullets and bombs. The hunkiest Henry VIII ever--sorry Eric Bana--downplays the onscreen Hogg’s evident superior complexity in order to react to the horrible circumstances he’s found himself in with the appropriate amount of fear compassion and resourcefulness. On the other hand Yun-Fat acts like he’s in Apocalypse Now. He gleefully spouts war-isn’t-hell Kilgore-isms even though his fervor and glibness are out of place in a film that treats the war with obvious grave solemnity. The tough-as-nails Mitchell does serve as something of a calming influence whenever she’s around Yun-Fat. Unfortunately sparks don’t fly between Mitchell and Rhys Meyers making it impossible to buy into their perfunctionary romance. Honestly Rhys Meyers generates more heat with the sublimely regal Michelle Yeoh whose black marketer is taken with this most charming customer. Too bad Yeoh doesn’t share any moments with her Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon costar Yun-Fat. Of the orphans the stone-faced Guang Li makes the greatest impression as a warrior among children who rightfully fears Hogg will usurp his authority. “We’re all something different in China ” Pearson tells Hogg. That certainly holds true for Hogg. Beyond serving as a CliffsNotes-style history lesson in the Second Sino-Japanese War The Children of Huang Shi asks what it takes during a time of conflict to transform an observer to a participant a pacifist to an advocate of war. Actually it doesn’t take much for the reporter portrayed here to abandon his personal and professional principles. Even if director Roger Spottiswoode pulls no punches whenever he places Hogg in harm’s way our hero’s swift conversion from impartial bystander to unlikely savior would still probably be laughed at by the hardened war correspondents in the director’s superior Under Fire. Sadly after depicting the horrors of war with bloody and brutal honesty Spottiswoode falls into the trap of presenting Hogg as the all-knowing all-sage Westerner out to rescue 60 “savages” not just from the Japanese but from themselves. The students don’t teach anything of value to Hogg. Even his relationships with a select few students aren’t as fully explored as those he shares with Pearson and Chen. That’s not to say that the much-anticipated journey across the Gobi Desert isn’t inspirational. It is even if it seems more rushed and less eventful than expected. The Children of Huang Shi isn’t as powerful or compelling as Schindler's List but there’s no denying that it may help Hogg receive the recognition he deserves outside of China for his selfless actions during a war that he had no vested interest in.
Four tweener boys—Maps (Daniel Radcliffe) Misty (Lee Cormie) Spit (James Fraser) and Spark (Christian Byers)--have grown up together in a dusty Catholic orphanage deep in Australia’s outback during the 1970’s. The boys are fast friends partly because they are the home’s December Boys the only four born in that month. As the film begins all four are once again passed over by an adoptive couple--and disappointed once again in their collective dream of leaving the place and becoming part of a real family. But fate steps in as the foursome gets the life-altering chance to go for Christmas vacation to visit an elderly couple that lives by a gorgeous cove on the sea. As their holiday progresses the boys begin to compete for the affections of another family living in the magical cove a couple contemplating adopting a child. By the time the holiday is over all four have had an unforgettable life experience that will shape the rest of their days. Daniel Radcliffe branches out from his iconic role as Harry Potter with this terrific performance as Maps the eldest of the four orphan boys. As a slightly hardened teen who secretly longs for love and stability this character is very different from Harry (despite the orphan thread that links the two together) and Radcliffe inhabits him completely. The other three boys also give natural believable performances especially Lee Cormie who is the film’s narrator and central character. His portrayal of that bespectacled artistic smaller-than-the-others Misty is nuanced and brave quite the accomplishment for a kid who has only just turned fifteen. The rest of the gifted cast--including iconic Aussie actor Jack Thompson of classics like Breaker Morant and The Man from Snowy River--all add to the overall quality of this well- acted telling of an emotional but never sappy story of adolescent longing and coming of age. Australian Rod Hardy spent more than 20 years in Hollywood directing mostly episodic television with a few made-for-TV movies (Buffalo Girls) and feature films (Robinson Crusoe with Pierce Brosnan). With December Boys Hardy headed back home to use all that experience to make a film that speaks to the emotions of childhood which resonates into adult experience. Using the incredible landscapes of Oz as a key element of the story Hardy creates a visual cornucopia that parallels the emotional journey the four orphans take through the course of the film. His adept handling of many of the most universal life passages--first kiss loss of parents love/hate of siblings dealing with the death of a loved one--bring a strong realism to the story adapted from a novel by Michael Noonan. Yet there’s a hint of magical realism to the tale too as well as a strong religious undertone. All meld into a cinematic experience that will engage you and stay with you long after the credits roll.