Canadian-British director Roger Spottiswoode – who in addition to several successful mainstream entertainments (Shoot to Kill, Air America, Tomorrow Never Dies) has a number of remarkable, topical and quite moving movies to his credit, including And the Band Played On, Under Fire, The Matthew Shepard Story and 2007’s Shake Hands with the Devil – commented 11 years ago during the production of The Children of Huang Shi (2008) that with this story drawn from true historical events and people he “didn’t want to do a political film.” Naturally, in a current world of displaced refugees chafing under threatening regimes and seeking escape, historical parallels do assert themselves in this narrative about British journalist George Hogg (1915-1945), who like the reporters in 1979 Nicaragua that Nick Nolte and Joanna Cassidy played in Under Fire, initially came just to cover the unfolding “war story” and wound up being conscience-stirred and compelled to act.
The crucible of war for Oxford University alumnus Hogg (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, himself eclectically adventurous in the roles he’s taken up from Titus, Alexander and Match Point to The Magnificent Ambersons, Elvis, The Tudors and Dracula) would be the brutal advance into northern China by Imperial Japanese Army troops 80 years ago, setting the stage for Hogg’s now-legendary, initially reluctant but ultimately heroic efforts to gain the trust of, care for and save from conscription by the invaders 60 scrappy, unprotected orphans. With what co-star Radha Mitchell (of Finding Neverland and Melinda and Melinda, playing an Americanized version of the real-life New Zealand aid worker who collaborated with Hogg to smuggle food and medicine to the ravaged citizenry) called Spottiswoode’s “passionate attitude” and “hands-on” approach to the material in the Jane Hawksley-James MacManus screenplay, the complex and truly international Chinese-Australian-German co-production, replete with the complex logistics of Chinese location filming and intercultural cooperation, emerged as equally spot-on in its depiction of combat carnage as well as personal peril and principle. Chinese film icon Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Tomorrow Never Dies and soon to be seen in Crazy Rich Asians), playing an aristocratic woman of means persuaded to assist Hogg in his efforts, strongly felt that this project reflected the “resilience of humanity” in a stirringly ecumenical fashion, while fellow Chinese movie titan (and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon veteran) Chow Yun Fat, portraying a resistance fighter who saves Hogg’s life, felt that “every day is family business” on the film set.
The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Travers wrote: “This may sound like the kind of implicitly condescending Great White Father saga in which Hollywood specializes. But the story is true, and director Roger Spottiswoode never depicts the Chinese as anything less than George's equals. The movie may be a heavy dose of inspirationalism but it never preaches. We don’t need to be told that these events actually took place because everything in it makes human sense.” It also make dynamic visual sense as cinematographer Zhao Xaioding brings the same meticulous detail and transformative style he invested in the fantasy worlds of House of Flying Daggers and The Great Wall to the alternately beautiful architecture and ravaged geography of 1938 China. With its score by two-time Academy Award® nominee David Hirschfelder (Shine, Elizabeth, Australia) highlighted on an Isolated Music Track and an intriguing making-of documentary included, The Children of Huang Shi – like the little-known, heretofore undramatized true events that inspired it – will be a genuine discovery on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray July 17. Preorders open July 5 for this “remarkable, sweeping, deeply absorbing epic. A true story of remarkable courage” (Jeffrey Lyons, NBC/Reel Talk).