I would guess that Roger Spottiswoode is one of those directors-for-hire who, on the first read through of a script, is able to determine exactly how much each scene will cost,; is adept at squeezing money out of a stone and completely understands the mysterious world of international co-productions.
That’s why his films often have interesting locations—Shake Hands with the Devil was shot in Uganda, The Children of Huang Shi in China—are nicely shot and have production value that far out paces their actual budgets.
The capital “I” important stories in his films—he tends to be drawn toward serious topics like genocide and war—are generally undone not by the virtues of his technical production, but by his seeming inability to direct actors or breathe life into stilted stories. He understands how to block a scene, how to shoot it and what lens to use, so it all looks nice, but he relies too heavily on cinema clichés to manipulate the audience into caring about the mannequins on screen.
The Children of Huang Shi is a compelling true story about a brazen British journalist (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who with the help of an Australian nurse (Radha Mitchell), saves a group of orphaned children during the Japanese occupation of China in 1937. A story that could have had Schindler List possibilities though, is rendered ineffective by his inability to effectively guide his actors through the emotional highpoints of the story. Instead each scene is broken down into a series of cookie-cutter cinema clichés.
Even worse than the predictable and tired storytelling is the inappropriate use of lame humor—“This is my favourite part,” says Chen Hansheng (Chow Yun Fat) as he blows up a building just minutes after a gruesome massacre.
The Children of Hunag Shi could have been an interesting look at an important and rarely told story from our recent past, but despite some gorgeous photography, falls far short of captivating.
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