From the first moments we hear David Hirschfelder's sweeping score pour into The Children of Huang Shi, it's obvious that it's out to become a grand affair. And why not -- it's the epic story of George Hogg, a British journalist and Oxford scholar most noteworthy for his 700-mile trek to safely caravan an orphanage of abandoned boys during the Japanese occupancy of China. Dead Poets Society meets Seven Years in Tibet in this intimate global drama all constructed by Tomorrow Never Dies director Roger Spottiswoode into a large-scale adventure riddled with sentimentality, miracles, war-laden explosions, and majestic characters. Even despite some quirky casting decisions and flowery dramatic delivery, The Children of Huang Shi gets a lot right as it takes viewers step-by-step along the worn path of dramatic wartime storytelling.
Hogg (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers,"The Tudors" and "Elvis"), an adventure-thirsty photographer well-educated in the Japanese and American landscapes, has found his way into the Nationalist/Communist struggle in the heart of 1937 China. After saving Hogg's neck during a botched medical transport mission he was following, Chen Hansheng (Chow Yun-Fat, Hard Boiled) has decided to send the now-hunted Brit to Huang Shi, a city with a forgotten orphanage where the kids eat little and learn less. With the help of nurse Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell, Mozart and the Whale) and the illustrious goods dealer Mrs. May (Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Hogg attempts the impossible: to clean up the heathen children and give them a sense of worth within a dilapidated, harsh existence -- all of which builds a trust that would soon be tested as the boys must flee for their safety.
If you're at all interested in the relatively-foreseeable outcome of this story, by all means try and avoid reading up too much on George Hogg before watching The Children of Huang Shi. The events that occur both during and after the trek along the Silk Road hold a lot of the film's potency, a heartstring-strumming an operatic path that echoes back across the film's timeline to try and coil together a touching experience. For those of you that know his story, you'll recognize a few differences in names and nationalities here and there (as well as other historical facts), but it's a mostly earnest and accurate depiction of a greatly-transformed man that affected the lives of many of his students. But most of all, fans of sweeping sociological studies in the vein of The Painted Veil and Harrison's Flowers will find something to enjoy in Spottiswoode's historical drama -- just think less romance and a bit more energy.
It's not without a few stumbling blocks, one particularly with the casting of George Hogg. Rhys-Meyers has impressed with his portrayal of a conniving adulterer in Match Point and as Henry VIII in his tentpole role in "The Tudors", both of which exploit his keen ability to mold onto smarmy, vindictive entities. Here, he's asked to be a well-traveled pacifist who reaches deep into his heart to look after a bunch of aggressive children, and it comes across as a little awkward. Eventually Rhys-Meyers gets settled in -- or we just grow more familiarized with his demeanor -- and it becomes a non-issue, though in the right hands it could've been a breathtaking performance. His supporting cast, however, is rather good; as she's exhibited in Man on Fire and Mozart and the Whale, Radha Mitchell plays off of her male counterparts with grace and aggression, while the two focal Chinese stars Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh infuse both charm and character to their predominately English-spoken roles.
Children of Huang Shi does all the same things as other historical epics of its ilk, but it handles them -- from involved production and costume design to explosive and firearms work -- in a way that nudges aside subtlety to keep it robust and engaging from start to finish. Matching this style, it's also another visually stunning creation from Zhang Yimou's regular photographer Zhao Xiaoding, the awe-inspiring cinematographer responsible for shooting both House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower. He utilizes earthen tans and deep blues with this picture, though there are splashes of color aplenty at the most unexpected moments. That statement summarizes Children of Huang Shi well: when least expected from this drama that sticks to tried-and-true theatrics, it adds a dash of flare here and a blast of color there while telling its unbelievable story of optimism and maturity. George Hogg's story is worth experiencing in this fashion, one that grips and informs amid grand-scale cinematography.
Video and Audio:
Sony's usually pretty reliable at handling their more austere "classics" features, especially with their foreign-themed films, which makes it no surprise that Children of Huang Shi's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation looks very good. You can see agreeable color saturation and contrast values during daytime portions, though the brightness gets a little hot here and there. At nighttime is where the disc really holds its own, showing off a substantially solid competence with black levels and shading. Some visible edge enhancement can be seen, though it's more of an opalescent ring than a radiation halo when it appears. But, I did detect a bit of garbled detail in facial features and backdrops that can only attributed to transfer issues, though other instances of finely-etched detail came through with strong precision. It's still a very attractive transfer despite these digital problems, one that showcases moments of rich detail and contrast strength as its assets.
In the audio department, we're working with two robust elements that could make or break this Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track -- Hirshfelder's score, and a range of military-based sound effects. Thankfully, it represents them both, while really giving the rear channels an exercise. Swarming planes fill the speakers from back to front several times in the film, whiel gunshots rattle each side of the soundstage with plenty of aggression. As mentioned, the score always sounds splendid, working as an element that accompanies the dialogue and scarce non-explosive effects well. Vocal clarity, however, has a few issues. Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh are somewhat difficult to hear, while the quieter scenes between Rhys-Meyers and Mitchell can sound a little thin. But, to match those, there are also plenty of scenes audible enough to split that positive-negative ratio straight down the middle. Overall, it's a full track that accompanies the tone of the feature quite well. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are available to accompany this sole English/Japanese/Chinese language track.
Challenge of Huang Shi (11:49):
Sony's usually very good at toning downt he adrenaline with their featurettes as well, which can be seen in this well-assembled full-frame featurette. It highlights interview time with the cast, crew and director Spottiswoode, while integrating off-screen moments and film footage in with their Q&As. Sure, there's a lot of plot re-telling and generic praise, but certain moments -- especially as the features progresses along passed its halfway point -- provide warm reflection on the history behind the story that can be insightful.
We've also got an anamorphic Trailer for the film, along with a slew of Sony's other like-themed Previews -- including ones for Waltz with Bashir, Ashes of Time: Redux (no mention of Blu-ray, yet), Rachel Getting Married, and Synecdoche, New York -- all anamorphic as well. Shoot, the disc is worth a rental just based on that.
The Children of Huang Shi becomes just about everything you'd expect from a historical war-time drama -- adventurous and explosive for a few stretches, quiet and endearing in others -- while capturing the mood of Japan-occupied China in plain-enough fashion to support George Hogg's wonderful story. It's less of a journalistic integrity piece and more of a soul-searching development film, one filled with performances than range from fine to fine-enough in Jonathan Rhys-Meyers' case. Spottiswoode historical docu-drama offers a firmly Recommended viewing experience, both as a strong visual experience and as a tender story of an important human being.