Revolving around a family of bankers, Christina Yao’s earnest historical drama Empire of Silver may not immediately invite sympathy for its protagonists. It is, however, a beautifully-shot feature debut, an ambitious production with a story that examines the mechanics of banking a century ago, as well as the consequences of unrequited love.
Directed and co-written by Yao, an established playwright and stage director in Taiwan and the U.S., Empire of Silver begins by introducing Lord Kang (Tielin Zhang), the family head, who runs a bank with multiple branches and is a leading voice in a guild of bankers known as “the Wall Street of China.” His four sons, identified solely by their birth order, run the gamut: First (Shi Da Sheng) is a charitable-minded, deaf-mute Buddhist; Second (Hei Zi) is a man of physical action; Third is his least favorite, for reasons that are not initially revealed; and Fourth (Du Jiang) is, well, young and in love.
Fourth has fallen deeply in love with the bride (Li Yi Xiao) in his arranged marriage; they travel from Beijing to the seaside city of Tianjin to enjoy their honeymoon. Fourth’s bride is kidnapped soon after they arrive in the city, and then two tragedies befall the family: Second is paralyzed in a horse-riding accident while racing to rescue the bride, and then the bride kills herself after she is raped by her kidnappers. Fourth suffers a complete mental breakdown.
With Second and Fourth out of the picture, and First not even considered because of his physical disabilities, Third is thrust into a position of future family leadership, something he actively resists. Nonetheless, Lord Kang begins grooming him to take over the family business, bringing the two together as never before. And the more time that Third spends with his father, the less he likes him. (Among other things, he witnesses his father’s plan to hoard salt until masses of people fall ill from salt deficiency, at which point the price will be highest and he and the bank can make the most money.)
As Lord Kang sees things, the most momentous decision facing Third is the selection of a new Chief Manager of operations. Lord Kang urges Third to appoint Beijing Branch Manager Qui (Ding Zhi Cheng), a man lacking in principles and character, because he is more likely to follow directions. Third, however, favors Tianjin Branch Manager Liu (King Shih Chieh), an honest and principled man, which creates a wedge between Third and his father.
Further complicating the situation is Madame Kang (Hao Lei), Third’s stepmother, who is closer to his age than to Lord Kang. From the looks that Madame Kang and Third exchange, it seems that there may be something more to their relationship, but that’s a secret that must wait to be unlocked.
The drama proceeds at a stately pace, even as the film transforms into a tale of romantic loss and yearning, and then transforms further into a light action picture. It’s not particularly exciting, but it proves to be absorbing for the patient viewer, and definitely presents a fresh look from the financial fringes, as it were, at the Boxer Rebellion.
Aaron Kwok is properly restrained, and the other performers do a fine job of capturing their various characters. Jennifer Tilly has a small role as a devout missionary who befriends Madame Kang. Anthony Yiu Ming Pun, director of photography, does a splendid job of making disparate locations in the cities and deserts look very good indeed, and Stephen Tung Wai choreographs the occasion action that breaks out.
In the current economic climate, Empire of Silver provides a measured look at the 1%, the people who, once upon a time, actually had bars of silver in their possession as a measure of their wealth and position. It lays bare their unethical behavior. Ultimately, though, it’s a lovely, thoughtful movie that deserves a bit of attention.
— From my review at Twitch.
‘Empire of Silver’ opens today at AMC Stonebriar in Frisco.