Given the current world financial crisis and banking dilemmas, the release of “Empire of Silver” certainly comes at an opportune time, charting as it does the rise of the Shanxi merchants towards the end of the Qing Dynasty of China, whose wealth and influence all over the world saw them being referred to as the ‘Wall Street of China’. The film was a prestige production, being based upon the historical novel “The Silver Valley” by Shanxi merchant descendent Cheng Yi, and boasting a US$10 million investment by top Taiwanese tycoon Gou Tai Ming. It was helmed by regular theatre director Christina Yao, produced by noted critic Peggy Chiao, and perhaps more importantly features a truly impressive cast, with the award winning Aaron Kwok in the lead, supported by the likes of Mainland veteran actor Zhang Tielin (from the popular television series “Princess Returning Pearl”), up and coming actress Hao Lei (recently in Lou Ye’s highly controversial “Summer Palace”), and even a recognisable Hollywood star in Jennifer Tilly (“Bullets over Broadway”). Having premiered at the 2009 Berlin International Film Festival, the film went on to critical success, winning a number of prizes and nominations at award ceremonies, including the all important ‘Most Attractive Director’ for Christina Yao at the Shanghai International Film Festival.
The film begins at the end of the 19th Century, with Lord Kang (Zhang Tielin) as the head of the Shanxi merchant organisation and trying to decide which of his three sons should succeed him. Circumstances push him to choose the flighty and carousing Third Master (Aaron Kwok), who is himself initially uninterested in taking up the reigns of the family business, not least since he is still in love with the girl who has now unfortunately become his stepmother (Hao Lei). As the country enters a time of war and political turmoil, he gradually steps into the role, though frequently fights with his father over their very different ideas of business ethics and the company’s place in the changing society, as paper money and savings accounts begin to replace the old ways of silver hoarding.
“Empire of Silver” is an interesting film in terms of approach, with Yao going neither for a fully fledged grandiose epic, nor a dry piece of fact based historical reportage. Instead, she attempts, and generally succeeds, to mix these different styles, whilst focusing mainly on the character of Third Master. This works well, and by effectively seeing the film and the changes sweeping the country through his eyes, she is able to address a number of important moral issues and choices, as the bankers have to decide whether to take the path of self-interest or to dedicate themselves to the nation and people – obviously still a very pertinent question for the industry today.
At the same time, the film also explores the shift from traditional to more modern values in China, with the father-son conflict and related unrequited love and lust story at its heart questioning filial obedience and the following of Confucian values. As such, there is certainly a lot going on both narratively and thematically, and though the plot does lose focus a bit at times, it manages to engage throughout, with a vaguely educational rather than propagandist feel. Turning in a notably more balanced performance than in “Murderer”, Kwok is solid in the lead role, and carries the film well enough, though his character at times feels like too obvious an audience cipher. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Jennifer Tilly, who seems woefully lost and out of her depth, and gives the impression that she is reading her lines from an autocue.
Yao’s theatre background shines through, showing a strong sense of shot composition and structure. Although things do get a little static at times during the longer dialogue and exposition scenes, she certainly has a cinematic eye, and the film is visually striking in places, with some epic vistas that help give the proceedings somewhat of a sweeping feel. The comparably high budget results in excellent production values, with some great looking and convincing sets and costumes – it certainly seems as if the producers did their homework in terms of historical research. This attention to detail gives the film a real boost, and makes it far more grounded and believable than other period set, more CGI heavy and fantasy influenced efforts.
Of course, all of this may mean that for some viewers “Empire of Silver” spreads itself somewhat thin, perhaps too mainstream and conventional for the art house crowd, and too given to flights of details and facts for popcorn fans. However, for most open minded audiences, and especially for anyone interested in the fascinating subject matter, it is a film which enjoys the best of both worlds, being by turns historically interesting, dramatically involving, and artistically impressive.
Christina Yao (director) / Christina Yao, Cheng Yi (screenplay)
CAST: Aaron Kwok
Lantian Chang … Eunuch
Zhicheng Ding … Manager Qui
Shih Chieh King … Manager Liu
Jonathan Kos-Read … Pastor Landdeck
Zhong Lü … Lu Sao
John Paisley … Dr. Wilson
Niu Tien … Yu Feng
Tielin Zhang … Master Kang