Friday, June 03, 2011



Production Photos from EMPIRE OF SILVER
Directed by Christina Yao

EMPIRE OF SILVER is a visual treat and a narrative mess.

The story is really very interesting, though as told in the film it is nearly incomprehensible at first viewing.

Because the story is interesting, and watching the film actually a pleasure, describing the plot/story explicitly is not a SPOILER but something of a RESCUER.

The hardest part of understanding the film is figuring out who's who, and what their relations are... but before that, some background.

First of all, the film takes place from about 1898 through the first decade of so of the 1900's.  The focus of the film is a family which runs a chain of major banks in North-Western China. The main currency at the beginning of this period is silver (not gold, as in the US). Then, paper money backed by silver becomes the currency. But when the government is weak, paper money becomes of dubious value, and hard currency (ie silver) becomes essential. A principal function of the bank is to maintain physical stores of silver and provide/transport them whenever and wherever needed.

Secondly, during this period there are several upheavals:  From 1898 to 1900 an anti-missionary, anti-foreign rebellion began in Northern China and spread to Peking (Beijing). Many missionaries and foreigners were killed. An army of Western Nations including British and French suppressed the rebellion. Because of the hand-to-hand fighting methods and training of the rebels, the Western Press called them "boxers" and this was known as the "Boxer Rebellion." The Ch'ing (or Qing) Dynasty, which had ruled for 250 years, supported the Boxers, and when the rebellion was suppressed, the dynasty was weakened and led to a Chinese Republic a decade or so later.

Before, during and after the Boxer Rebellion, China was buffeted by fighting between warlords, conservative nationalists (eg the Boxers), and progressive modernizers. There was a great difference between the poverty of most people, especially peasants, and the wealth of the ruling and merchant classes.

The story takes place largely in Shangxi, Beijing, Tianjin, and the Gobi Desert. Shangxi is near the coast of China roughly parallel to Southern Japan. Beijing is East of Shangxi, inland; Tianjin is South of both cities, roughly making an equilateral triangle, and the Gobi Desert is East and North of Beijing, extending to East and North of Shangxi.

The story begins with the head of the family, Lord Kang, and his four sons. The First Son is a deaf mute, the second an impetuous fighter, the third a sensitive young man. The Fourth Son is married to a beautiful woman who is is kidnapped and raped on a journey. She dies, but the Second Son is killed in a fall during a rescue attempt, and the Fourth Son goes mad with grief. That leaves the Third Son, also called Third Master, to take up the family business. Third Master and Lord Kang (his father) differ on the ways the bank should operate, and whom the bank should hire as its principal operating officers.

But the biggest issue, (and the most confusing in the story line) is the fact that the father hires a beautiful English speaking woman to teach English to Third Son. They fall in love. However, the father prevents the son from marrying this woman, and marries her himself. She is therefore Third Son's step-mother. This is the source of most of the "soap-opera" personal drama and conflict and anguish. Unfortunately, at least as exposed in the sub-titles, the evolution of this story is very unclear. (I never quite understood exactly when each of the events I just described actually took place, and exactly who was -- or was supposed to be -- a concubine.)

The film, with beautiful cinematography, and compellingly attractive and interesting actors and characters, describes the sweep of life -- as well as the personal values and relationships -- in China over this period of transition (the early 1900's) as seen through the eyes of this family trying to sustain their bank, as politics, war, and economic principles keep changing around them.

EMPIRE OF SILVER is directed by a noted stage director, Christina Yao, making her first major film, and stars Aaron Kwok and Hao Lei, both extremely attractive and charismatic.







(Minor warning note: Not everything that each review says in its synopsis of the events of the film is necessarily correct. -- The film, being confusing, may also confuse its reviewers.)

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