Too many biopics simplify their subjects' lives down to the point where it seems like great people never suffer through false starts: From childhood on, they aim themselves, arrow-like, at their goals. Which makes for good mythmaking, but a lousy portrayal of real life. The Children Of Huang Shi, a portrait of British journalist George Hogg, is romanticized in some respects, with enough lit-fic gloss that it resembles a respectable film adaptation of a Somerset Maugham novel. But at least it gets across the way Hogg stumbled into his life's work unintentionally: Even great lives don't always work out as intended.
Opening in 1937 with the Japanese occupation of China, Huang Shi follows Hogg (played with bristling energy by The Tudors star Jonathan Rhys Meyers) as he cockily infiltrates a dangerous contested area, eager to scoop his competition. When he witnesses a mass execution of Chinese civilians—part of the Rape Of Nanking—he finally realizes his danger, and he attempts to get his precious photos of the massacre to safety and expose the events to the world. Briefly, the film seems like it's heading in a Beyond Rangoon direction, with a single scared, trapped white guy providing a POV for thousands of faceless non-white victims in a war zone. But where a fictional film would have focused on Hogg's triumphant delivery of the telltale pictures, the real-life story gets completely sidetracked as an Australian nurse (Radha Mitchell) orders him to hole up in a rural orphanage. From there, the film jumps forward in vast leaps—months, then years, zip by as Hogg forgets the massacre and his escape in order to focus on the orphanage's day-to-day struggles.
The sudden switch from national problems to small but intense local ones isn't always satisfying, but it seems briefly, touchingly true-to-life. Still, it's odd that the film spends so much time focusing on Hogg's relationships with Mitchell, a sympathetic local merchant (Michelle Yeoh), and a West Point-educated Chinese guerrilla leader (Chow Yun-Fat), and so little on Hogg himself, and why he repeatedly radically altered his life's goals. The film's complete failure to get into his head makes his actions seem more insane than inspired, especially when he decides to take his kids on a 700-mile foot-trek to hoped-for safety. Huang Shi skims past most of that journey, which should rightly be the film's centerpiece, and by the end, the events that aren't covered seem more significant than those that are. It's a polished, beautifully shot story, and it acknowledges the messiness of real life. But like real life, it's often baffling and frustrating.