Despite its detailed coverage of a tumultuous China at the turn of the century, “Empire of Silver” is really a love story. While epic events like the Boxer Rebellion unfolded during the last days of the Qing Dynasty, this film’s focus is about boy meeting girl, boy falling in love with girl; then, boy having to choose between girl and money—most of the money in China, that is.

Based on one novel of a trilogy written by Cheng Yi about the “Chinese Wall Street,” Empire of Silver spotlights the dysfunctional Kang family, owners of Tian-Cheng-Yuan bank in 1899 Shangxi Province. With additional branches in Beijing and Shanghai, the Kang’s inherited empire demands a high degree of responsibility for maintaining it and appeasing the ancestors who created it. (Note that money transfers, profit sharing and the CEO system were all invented by the “piaohao” — the original bankers of Shanxi who were considered merchant class and looked down on, although extremely wealthy.)

Against the background of blackmailing opium-addicted prostitutes, forbidden divorces, unwanted foreign missionaries, class warfare and rebellions, Lord Kang (Zhang Tielin) struggles to preserve his family’s wealth managed by his many handlers whose Confucian practices make them loyal yet somewhat edgy as they’re allowed to visit their wives only once every three years. But, just in case anything goes awry with the money, there’s a ton of silver buried in the backyard of the estate.

Lord Kang’s four sons, addressed as First Master, Second, Third and Fourth, are groomed to take over the family business and sustain the approval of their departed ancestors. But things go horribly wrong as one by one each becomes incapacitated.

First is born mute and also has nonviolent Buddhist beliefs that would preclude any attachment to the material world. Bummer, when your family owns the country’s biggest bank. Second is prone to uncontrollable temper tantrums that cloud his judgment and hurls him headfirst into a horrifying accident. As for Fourth, he’s rendered useless after experiencing an unbearable personal tragedy that involves his new bride. That leaves Third, his father’s least favorite because of the boy’s artistic dalliances which is only exacerbated by Third’s falling in love with his young tutor, a woman his father eventually takes from him and marries. Third is also way too compassionate towards the impoverished locals that his father grudgingly feeds rice porridge to.

Hao Lei (as Madam Kang) and Aaron Kwok (as Third Master)
Hao Lei (as Madam Kang) and Aaron Kwok (as Third Master)

As Third, actor/singer/dancer Aaron Kwok, known as “Hong Kong’s Michael Jackson” plays a character not unlike his own. His bio states that Kwok’s father wanted his son to join his gold retail business, but one of Kwok’s brothers agreed to do so instead and freed Kwok to pursue an entertainment career. Although he plays Third with sobriety in scenes where he clashes with Lord Kang, Kwok also demonstrates an incredible tenderness whenever he’s acting with his stepmother/lover (Hao Lei).

Five years in the making, this panoramic film was shot over four and a half months on location in 13 cities and four provinces with post-production conducted in nine countries. Majestic scenes include lonely stretches of the great Gobi Desert; dust kicked up by galloping horses; lunging, snarling wolves and big-eyed, burly camels. Authentic antiques were borrowed from museums and real structures, like the 500 year-old Ming Building and 700 year-old Yuan Dynasty Bridge, were also used.

An international cast and crew feature the aforementioned Zhang Tielin, who is a British citizen, and Hapa Chinese/Canadian actress Jennifer Tilly. Unfortunately, Tilly has a small, awkward role as an American missionary (Mrs. Landdeck) spurning her wifely duties and encouraging Madam Kang towards her own independence through the use of a brutal form of birth control.

Taiwanese director Christina Yao, who was educated in the U.S., is best known for her theatrical work. A resident of Palo Alto California, Yao wears more than a few hats in this production — including producing and co-writing the script along with novelist Cheng Yi. Yao’s dedication to making such an ambitious film is a testament to her commitment to narrative, although too many sub-plots make it easy to get lost. Still, Yao tells one extraordinarily lovely, love story.

“Empire of Silver” opened Dec. 2, 2011 at the AMC Pacific Place. For more information, visit: www.empireofsilver.com.

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