(Sony Classics) Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Radha Mitchell, Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Guang Li, Matt Walker, Ping Su, David Wenham. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode
War brings out the worst in us. Greed, bloodlust, cowardice, brutality, all of these things surface once the shooting starts. However, war also can bring out the best in us, and in the most unlikely of people.
George Hogg (Rhys Meyers) is a confirmed pacifist and a British reporter with a yen for adventure but not a ton of experience. He travels to China to report on the Japanese invasion there in 1938. China had been in the midst of a civil war between the communists and the nationalist regime, but all that was put aside when a common energy emerged.
Along with fellow reporters Andy Fisher (Walker) and Eddie Wei (Su), Hogg manages to finagle their way into a medical supply transportation mission from the Red Cross into the besieged city of Nanking (called Nanjing more properly in the film). There, he witnesses first hand the atrocities of the Japanese army against the Chinese citizenry and captures it on film before he himself is captured. The Japanese commander seems inclined to release his prisoner back to Britain until the contents of his camera are discovered. Hogg is then marched off to be executed, but is saved by communist intelligence agent Chen Hansheng (Fat). During their escape, he witnesses the execution of his colleagues and in his shock, gives away their position. He is wounded and Hansheng only just manages to get them away in the nick of time.
Hansheng leaves him in the care of American nurse Lee Pearson (Mitchell) who has become a de facto caregiver to the displaced refugees of Nanjing. His wounds are not fatal but severe enough that he can’t travel back to England and tell the world what is going on in China, as Hansheng wants him to do. Instead, she sends him to the tiny village of Huang Shi where there is an orphanage, forgotten in the panicked exodus before the Japanese military invasion. She leaves him there to look after the children, who have almost no food and less learning. He is charged to provide them with both.
At first Hogg is uncomfortable with his new position and the children are none too happy with the situation either. In fact, they lead him out and attempt to beat him to death with sticks until a timely return by Pearson who admonishes the kids that if they don’t leave him alone and let him take charge, she will never return leaving them without medicine and food. Reluctantly, the kids agree to the deal.
There is a great deal of mistrust on both sides but as they warm to each other, Hogg proves to be resourceful. He manages to get a rusty old generator working, providing the orphanage with light. He strikes a deal with black marketeer Mrs. Wang (Yeoh) to provide seeds so that the orphanage can grow their own food. In return, he gives her half the harvest to sell on the black market.
Their little community is thriving when the news comes that the nationalist army is coming through and intends to conscript all of the older male children to fight in their army against the Japanese and the communists (talk about ambitious). Hogg, realizing that he can no longer stay in their little sanctuary, determines to move the children to safety. He finds a place on the edge of the Gobi desert so obscure, so out of the way that it is almost a sure thing that nobody will bother them there. The trouble is that the site is 700 miles away and they have no transportation. They must get there on foot.
Director Spottiswoode, whose resume includes Tomorrow Never Dies and The 6th Day, makes good use of the Chinese locations and even better use of Chinese cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao. Zhao, the man behind the camera for such Chinese epics as Curse of the Golden Flower, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles and House of Flying Daggers, is well able to capture the gorgeous vistas of the Gobi and the hills, forests and plains around Nanjing, but also the horrors of the war. The two make for a jarring counterpoint.
Rhys Meyers, so good as Henry VIII in the Showtime series “The Tudors,” is solid as Hogg. A man with the courage of his convictions but lacking the experience to know when he’s in over his head, he nonetheless changes from a plucky adventurer more consumed with making a mark on the world into a man of resourcefulness and responsibility who realizes that when you make a mark on a child, you’ve made a mark on the future just as indelibly as he wished to in his previous life. Mitchell is likewise solid as the hard-as-nails Pearson.
I was more taken with Fat and Yeoh. The two have a natural chemistry as you may remember from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and their all-too-brief time onscreen together here is memorable. They have very different roles; Fat as an agent who is James Bond on the outside but has deep convictions about his cause and a great deal of love for people. Yeoh is the opposite – somewhat cool and reserved on the outside but similarly soft on the inside. These are simply put two of the finest actors on the planet and it’s a shame they don’t get the props they deserve on this side of the Pacific.
The problem I have with this biopic, as I do with most biopics, is the unnecessary license the filmmakers take with history. One of the major historical characters in the film, for example, is shown dying heroically of wounds suffered in an aerial attack but history show that the character died instead of tetanus incurred when the character stubbed their toe playing basketball after which the toe became infected. Also, the orphans tend to be more stock characters than anything else; if they had been fleshed out more, it would have made for a more interesting dynamic.
Don’t get me wrong; this is a solid bit of filmmaking. Despite the license taken occasionally here, most of the events actually happened. George Hogg was a real guy and he did lead a group of orphans on a 700 mile journey. He also wrote a book about his experiences called “I See a New China” that is worth a read. His story translates well cinematically, although it doesn’t appear that the movie used his book extensively to fact check. Because of that, this isn’t a movie you need to see urgently, but it is still a movie worth seeing.
WHY RENT THIS: It’s a tremendous story from a historical event relatively unknown in the West. Gorgeous cinematography and outstanding performances from most of the cast make this a worthwhile endeavor.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: As is usual with Hollywood biopics, much historical misrepresentation, some of it fairly unnecessary.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and brutality are everywhere in this representation of the Rape of Nanking; definitely not for more impressionable sorts.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Lee Pearson is loosely based on Rewi Allen and Kathleen Hall, two nurses from New Zealand who were close to Hogg during this period.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: The Syrian Bride