Based on a true story, The Children of Huang Shi has sincerity to spare. What it lacks is vitality.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars as George Hogg, a journalist who helped rescue a group of Chinese orphans from the Japanese occupation in 1937. Cocky and reckless, Hogg manages to slip into the occupied zone by conning a Red Cross worker out of his papers. There he witnesses Japanese brutality firsthand, falls in with a shady Chinese spy (Chow Yun-Fat), and falls for a beautiful but emotionally distant nurse (Radha Mitchell), who uses her wiles to lure him to (and abandon him at) a decrepit orphanage to act as caretaker for a pack of near-feral boys.
Unfortunately, the moment Hogg arrives at the orphanage, the film—never particularly strong in the first place—screeches to a halt. The scenes of Hogg attempting to reach out to the children are terminally average, a flaw only amplified by Roger Spottiswoode's plodding direction. And as long stretches of the film creak along without emotional impact, the few moments of genuine surprise—such as a nicely assembled attack from a Japanese plane—are too brief to snare your attention for the long haul.
But the film's biggest weakness is Meyers. With a feeble delivery and a pretty-but-blank mug, he's far too bland to hang an overly earnest film on. Only at the end, as the real-life survivors recount their memories of Hogg over the closing credits, does The Children of Huang Shi achieve the impact it's been straining for. The long march to get there is hardly worth the effort.