FILM REVIEW:‘Empire of Silver’ shortchanges audiences

The world of finance is barren ground for a good story in ‘Empire of Silver,’ a big-budget period drama about the Wall Street of imperial China


Fri, Jul 31, 2009 - Page 16


Taiwanese IT tycoon Terry Gou’s (郭台銘) first foray into film funding, Empire of Silver (白銀帝國) has generated hype galore since shooting began in 2006. Three years, 46 locations and NT$400 million later, the period drama about an affluent banking family in Shanxi Province is a decent but less-than-impressive movie directed by Christina Yao (姚樹華), a Taiwan-born theater scholar, director and writer who has worked at theatrical companies and universities here and in the US.

The story centers on the powerful Kang family in late 19th-century China. Led by Lord Kang (China’s Zhang Tielin, 張鐵林), the family-run banking empire single-handedly built up what has come to be known as the Wall Street of imperial China through managing funds and issuing money orders.

Third Master (Aaron Kwok, 郭富城) is Lord Kang’s debauched and least favorite son. After his brothers meet with a series of tragic accidents, he becomes heir apparent to the clan’s mighty enterprise.

Aside from possessing neither the ambition nor the aptitude to become a money-driven businessman, Third Master’s conflict with his father involves his young Western-educated stepmother, Madam Kang (Hao Lei, 郝蕾), a diplomat’s daughter. She taught Third Master English and the two fell deeply in love before Lord Kang stepped in and stole the fair maiden.

The son embarks on a self-imposed exile in the desert, only to return upon hearing the news of his stepmother’s death. Meanwhile, as foreign intervention and civil war weakens the tottering Qing Dynasty, the economic meltdown that ensues forces Third Master to take the reins and lead his family.

Honed by some of China’s top filmmaking professionals, including artistic consultants William Chang (張叔平) and Yee Chung-man (奚仲文), cinematographer Anthony Pun (潘耀明) and editor Liao Ching-sung (廖慶松), the film has an immaculately polished look and shows unforgiving attention to the smallest detail in its profile of the affluent family. Reams of research went into the art direction — all of the antiques and artifacts used in the film are reported to be genuine.

The period’s banking operations are revealed in an early scene in which branch managers from across China gather in Lord Kang’s courtyard, waiting for their yearly shares to be announced after a ceremony that involves rows of abacuses. The Kang family’s luxurious lifestyle is eloquently painted and contrasted with the destitute world inhabited by the poor and the sick outside the clan compound’s stone walls.

Inside, a familial war is played out in silence between Lord Kang, the autocratic patriarch, Third Master, the conflicted son, and Madam Kang, the wife who goes as far as to mutilate her genitals as an act of rebellion. Such sober human drama recalls Zhang Yimou’s (張藝謀) 1991 masterpiece Raise the Red Lantern (大紅燈籠高高掛) and its focus on the repression of women.

Yet Empire of Silver fails to become a contemporarily relevant and absorbing story. Based on Chinese writer Cheng Yi’s (成一) three-volume novel The Silver Valley (白銀谷), the epic tale spans from late imperial to early Republican China and takes in the Boxer Rebellion (義和團) along the way. But unlike the tumultuous backdrop, the world of early banking proves to be barren ground for drama.

None of the characters is fully explored. The film’s story lines and themes vie for the audience’s attention and end up obscuring the narrative. On the one hand, there is the ideological clash between Confucian teachings and profit-driven pragmatism. On the other, we have the son experiencing a coming-of-age adventure in the Gobi Desert that involves a pack of wolves. Towards the end of the film, when their characters bid farewell to each other, the two romantic leads, Kwok and Hao, turn in stiff performances that are more soap opera than movie magic, and appear to read their lines from a teleprompter.

Cameos by Hollywood actress Jennifer Tilly and Taiwanese veterans Chin Shih-jie (金士傑) and Tien Niu (恬妞) merely add confusion to the dramatically incoherent film. And rather than smooth over the narrative blips, the recurrent and punctuated musical leitmotifs become annoying.

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