Title: Empire of Silver
Writer-director: Christina Yao
Starring: Aaron Kwok, Tielin Zhang, Jennifer Tilly, Hao Lei
There’s a special type of moviegoing misery to be found in self-important period pieces, and that’s just the sort of screaming boredom that Empire of Silver, the nearly impenetrable, emotionally arrested feature film debut of essayist and playwright Christina Yao, delivers. A drama focused on a powerful banking family in the late imperial/early Republican era of China, the movie rather gorgeously establishes its setting, but never locates a single compelling character or imparts any sense or sort of reality of what its subjects’ lives must truly have been like.
Adapted from a thick, three-volume romance, Cheng Yi’s The Silver Valley, the movie unfolds in 1899, against the backdrop of a rising tide of anti-Western sentiment and an ongoing destabilization of the ruling Qing dynasty. After the kidnapping of one of his in-laws, mighty banker Lord Kang (Tiehlin Zhang) bypasses his two older offspring — one a deaf-mute, and the other beset with temper problems — and appoints Third Master (Aaron Kwok) to take over his empire. Third Master, however, lacks his father’s strong-willed tendencies, and is ill-suited in general for the business world. To boot, he also nurses a not-very-secret crush on his much younger stepmother, Madam Kang (Hao Lei), who is attended to by Ms. Landdeck (Jennifer Tilly), a Western missionary. In time, various power-plays and internal divisions threaten to overturn Third Master’s attempts to keep Lord Kang’s empire in one piece.
Filmed over four years ago, Empire of Silver had its debut in a sidebar section of the Berlin Film Festival a couple years back, and has since traveled the festival circuit far and wide, even racking up a handful of awards (mostly in cinematography and foreign film categories) at specialty fetings. Yao’s adaptation of the material, though, is all about background detail, and not human drama. The copious use of affectations and formal salutations is technically correct, since pre-modern Chinese families often referred to their sons by the number of their birth, and people of a lower social stratus would refer to wealthier non-family members as master. But this has the unintended early effect of rendering the movie some sort of comedy-sketch satire, and when Yao fails to establish any character worth rooting for (or against) one has to fight the urge to develop some sort of on-the-fly Empire drinking game.
The monkish lifestyles forced upon the mid-level financial managers would seem to offer up a world of rich contrast and resentment, compared to the more lavish ruling class. But Yao never exploits this, and with the minor exception of Tielin, the acting here is all so wooden as to invite unfavorable comparison to a collection of popsicle sticks.
Far and away the class of Empire of Silver is its level of technical investment and accomplishment. Some of the buildings and bridges that serve as backdrops date back many hundreds of years, and Anthony Yiu Ming Pun’s cinematography is superlative, as are the production design and costume work by Yee Chung Man and Jessie Dai Mei Ling, respectively. These attributes, however, can’t save a movie which from start to finish exhibits such a startling lack of dramatic instinct as to render the entire affair stolid.
Written by: Brent Simon