So the posters have Chow Yun Fat's mug splattered in the center and given top billing. However, this is actually Jonathan Rhys Meyers' vehicle as he plays the central character of George Hogg, an Associated Press reporter who smuggles himself into pre-WWII Nanjing and witnessed the atrocities of the invading Japanese army. Inspired by a true story, this is about the life of Hogg as he takes it upon himself to do whatever he can to save a group of orphans he gets set up and acquainted with.
What of Chow? His Chen Hansheng, a communist fighting against the Japanese, gets relegated to supporting appearances, to give us some brief history lessons on the uneasy alliance between the communists and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists, as they only link up with each other to fight a common enemy when it conveniences both parties. You would come to think that, from the trailers, this is gonna be quite an action packed movie with Chow leading his group of merry men to do battle against the Japanese, but the movie employs a "fight another day" stance, and the central plot has nothing to do with that too.
And pairing up in the same movie after their Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon stint is Michelle Yeoh, only this time, they don't get to share any scene together, and worse, Yeoh's role as a rich merchant Mrs Wang gets severely diminished. No doubt it is clear that the prospects of uniting Chow and Yeoh together would bring in curious crowds who can't wait to savour the opportune moment, but alas they happen to be just the side dishes.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers, joined by Radha Mitchell, fresh from her battle with a beastly crocodile, takes on leading man status, as the reporter who finds himself thrusts into Huang Shi, and into the enclave of 60 male orphans, living in filth, and without hope. Strongly encouraged to stay behind and take care of them, he becomes the reluctant and unwilling teacher, but slowly wins over the hearts and trust of the children, and hence begins a fairy tale like environment that seemingly is remotely away from the war in China, except for the enemy planes flying overhead serving as a reminder.
However, it's soon that they find themselves between a rock and a hard place, with the Japanese inching closer, and the Nationalists wanting to possess their land for their use, as well as to conscript those boys into warfare. Not wanting that to happen, Hogg packs them all up, and so begins the journey proper as per what the title says.
The events that unfold are just plain sailing without any tension involved, nor any excitement built up. It just flat-lines its way through beautiful environments of mountains and plains, coupled with treacherous snows and sandstorms, but otherwise, it seemed that their 1000km trek looked quite peanuts. What's more amusing here though is how the Chinese cast look so much more comfortable speaking English - I thought Chow has improved by leaps and bounds, but Meyers and Mitchell really sounded very off in their Mandarin diction, that you'll find it quite ridiculous that the parties they speak to, can understand them totally. Brownie points have to be given for their courage to speak, and give the language a go, though again it could be playing to character as one cannot master the language in such a short period of time.
At the end of the day, this played out more like a simple account of an event that had happened (of course again with artistic license taken), and the documentary-styled interview segments at the end while the end credits play, affirmed what happened and gave us some insights into Hogg's character, much more that what the film had portrayed. While the alternate title might seem to involve the Children quite a bit, only a few were given names and faces, and even fewer given personalities. Similar to movies like Schindler's List and Hotel Rwanda where the ability of one man helped save many, but this one lacked that crucial emotional punch.