Children of the Silk Road

Starring, Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh. Directed by Roger Spotiswoode

Running Time: 124mins
Rated: Rated M (violence and mature themes)

The first Australia-China co-production (with Germany a third partner) bids to be an epic tale of heroism and endurance in war-torn China of the late 1930s. It is based on fact, being the story of George Hogg, a British journalist who ran foul of the occupying Japanese army when he photographed atrocities in the city of Nanking, but was saved from execution by Chinese partisans and became de facto guardian of a group of about 60 orphans. When the fighting drew close to the orphanage, he led the children on a march to safety in Shandan, a journey over mountainous terrain of some 1100 kilometres and three months.

Considering that when he first came to the orphanage he did not speak a word of Chinese it was a remarkable achievement, but Hogg was not alone in his enterprising evacuation: he had valuable assistance from an American nurse, a partisan leader and an influential and wealthy Chinese widow.

Hogg, who became known as Ho-Ke to the boys, had to deal with not only the invading Japanese army but also with the Chinese Nationalist military, who did not always see eye to eye with the communist partisans. The problem of finding food for the orphans was an ever-present concern and medical supplies were at a premium. That he kept the orphans alive was an achievement in itself, let alone transport them so far.

Roger Spotiswoode's film is a handsome account, no doubt, with full credit to cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding for the eye-catching vistas in China with lashings of local colour. But somehow it is hard to imagine that this is exactly how events took place. Perhaps it has something to do with the exigencies of making a film for both Eastern and Western audiences, but the finished product is never involving, and the treatment seems at arm's length from the material.

The script by Scots journalist James MacManus and Janet Hawksley strives for the meaningful but instead merely meanders. Under Spotiswoode's unimaginative direction the lead performers never bring the characters truly alive, and neither Irishman Jonathan Rhys Meyers (as Hogg) nor Australia's Radha Mitchell (the nurse, Lee Pearson) generates any spark for their romantic liaison, which is probably a spurious invention anyway. Two veterans of the popular Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Chow Yun Fat (as the partisan leader 'Jack' Chen) and Michelle Yeoh (as the widow, Madame Wang), seem much more at home in their roles. David Wenham is prominent in early scenes as an Australian war correspondent, and another Sydneysider, schoolboy Guang Li, does well as the angriest of the disillusioned orphans whom Hogg has to win over.

Action scenes, with fighter aircraft strafing a roadway thronged with refugees or the Japanese soldiers callously executing civilians, are very well handled, and bring the film its M certification. Some of the boys who took part in the journey, now men in their 70s or 80s, appear during the end credits, and their praise for their British saviour is a nice way to end a story about a "foreign devil' held in high regard in China by those in the know.

Fox Out July 3
Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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