Based on a true story, The Children of Huang Shi has sincerity to spare. What it lacks is vitality.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars as George Hogg, a journalist who in 1937 helped rescue a group of Chinese orphans from the Japanese occupation. Cocky and reckless, Hogg manages to slip into the occupied zone by conning a Red Cross worker out of his papers. There he witnesses Japanese brutality firsthand, falls in with a shady Chinese spy (Chow Yun-Fat), and falls for a beautiful but emotionally distant nurse (Radha Mitchell), who uses her wiles to lure him to a decrepit orphanage to act as caretaker for a pack of near-feral boys.

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Unfortunately, the moment Hogg arrives at the orphanage, the film screeches to a halt. The scenes of Hogg attempting to reach out to the children are terminally average, a flaw only amplified by Roger Spottiswoode's plodding direction. And as long stretches of the film creak along without emotional impact, the few moments of genuine surprise—such as a nicely assembled attack from a Japanese plane—are too brief to snare your attention for the long haul.

But the film's biggest weakness is Meyers. With a feeble delivery and a pretty-but-blank mug, he's far too bland to hang an overly earnest film on. Only at the end, as the real-life survivors recount their memories of Hogg over the closing credits, does The Children of Huang Shi achieve the impact it's been straining for.