Loosely based on actual events, this film should really be more moving than it ends up being. Most of the blame has to be laid on Jonathan Rhys-Meyers shoulders as nothing he does in the film seems unrehearsed or real. What should come off as poignant ends up being unbelievable because of his insincerity in the role. That being said there are several reasons to watch the film.
Young English journalist, George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers – Bend It Like Beckham, Match Point), is in China covering the events of the Japanese invasion and slaughter of China in the 1930s. He is caught by the Japanese photographing things he shouldn't have even seen in Nanjing. As he is about to be beheaded by the Japanese military he is rescued by a member of the Chinese Communist resistance, Jack Chen (Chow Yun Fat – Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
George is injured and is patched up by an American nurse, Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell – Melinda and Melinda, Silent Hill). During his recuperation Hogg is sent to an all-boys orphanage in the mountains. The children have no adult supervision, except for one older female cook, and are like little animals. Hogg, egged on by, decides to stay at the orphanage to teach and take care of the 60-odd boys. He soon wins their trust and they begin repairing the rundown orphanage and growing their own food.
When the Japanese start getting too close to the orphanage the Chinese Army tells Hogg that they will take over the orphanage and force the boys to serve in the military. Hogg, and decide to take the boys and all their belongings on a risky 700 mile journey through the snowy mountains to a safer village.
Journalist James McManus's script floated around for around 20 years before director Richard Spottiswoode (Shake Hands With the Devil, Tomorrow Never Dies) was greenlighted to shoot the film. Much of his original script was rewritten and hence the 'loosely based' tag. The young boys in the story can overcome lice, famine and a long cold journey, but there is nothing they can do about the inadequate script. You will find yourself getting more and more frustrated as there is a good story somewhere in here, but it is never given the opportunity to emerge. With all the rewrites the story has been rendered quite formulaic and without any real pull to it. There is an attempt to get that epic feel about the film, but everyone fails miserably.
Actually much of the story is not historically accurate, so don't go in expecting to learn much about this time in Chinese history. The Rape of Nanjing and the scorched earth policy sections are very vividly shot and might be disturbing for younger or more sensitive viewers.
As for reasons to see the film, the beautiful scenery in the film is breathtaking at times as the countryside of China is showcased. The ending is still emotional despite the weakness of the script. As far as acting goes, Radha Mitchell and Chow Yun Fat (he especially) do good jobs.
Though the film is predictable, poorly scripted and suffers from its leading man's overacting, it is still a decent watch at the end of the day.
-The Challenge of Huang Shi