A period drama centered on a powerful banking family in late Imperial/early Republican China, “Empire of Silver” plays like the carcass of a bigger, more coherent and perhaps better costumer. Immaculately lensed in widescreen by Anthony Poon, and designed with a care for the smallest detail by fellow Hong Konger Yee Chung-man, this first feature by Taiwan-born legit director-writer Christina Yao is dramatically choppy, poorly dialogued and woodenly played. The distribution sun looks like it’s setting rapidly on this “Empire.”
Pic shot over four months in four northern provinces of China in late 2006. After two years in post-production, when U.K. producer Jeremy Thomas boarded, the pic finally bowed, with no press screening, in a sidebar of the Berlinale’s official selection.
Extracted from a three-volume romance, “The Silver Valley,” by Cheng Yi, the film had the potential to be a gripping (and contemporarily relevant) tale of a little-known corner of Sino history — the Wall Street of Imperial China, in Shanxi province, which controlled the nation’s finances by managing money transfers and funds. Alas, Yao’s script elicits no drama from the banking mechanisms of the time, nor finds any in the yarn of a business dynasty brought to its knees by internal divisions.
Story starts in 1899, as anti-Western feeling (led by the Boxers) is growing, and the Qing dynasty is tottering. After the kidnapping of one son’s wife, banker Kang (Zhang Tielin, the only thesp to register) chooses his third son (Hong Kong’s Aaron Kwok), an arty type, to take over the reins of his empire.
However, apart from being entirely unfit to become a ruthless businessman, Third Master carries an undying torch for his young stepmother (Hao Lei, “Summer Palace”), whom he once deflowered but who has now been stolen from him by his overbearing dad. After a reflective spell in the desert — where some action belatedly breaks out, courtesy of CGI wolves — Third Master returns on the news of his stepmom’s death as chaos erupts in China.
Also milling around on the cast sidelines is Jennifer Tilly as a Western missionary, though most of her part seems to have disappeared during the story’s many fissures.
Music by three composers works hard to paper over the cracks. Post-production was spread between Europe, the U.S., Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand and Taiwan.