Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Empire of Silver: Gold for effort, bronze for results
Recently I got a chance to screen the upcoming movie Empire of Silver from Neoclassics. Directed by Christina Yao and starring Aaron Kwok, Hao Lei, Tielin Zhang and Jennifer Tilly, Empire of Silver is a gorgeous film that depicts the life of the Kang family and their management of their piaohao as the Qing dynasty begins to fall. A huge amount of effort went into this movie and I am truly impressed with their work. I'll talk a little bit more about that later, but I want to first share a little history with you.
In the 19th century, China was ruled by the Qing dynasty which would be the last Imperial dynasty to rule China. Imperial power had waned considerably since the Qing Dynasty took power in the 17th century. The various European powers, searching for new markets and sources of raw materials began to carve out spheres of influence in China. Sadly, the Emperor was largely powerless to stop European expansion. Ultimately Chinese resentment at European encroachment would lead to full-scale rebellion and the Nationalist Revolution in 1912. During this time period the piaohao, based out of the northern Shanxi province, would grow economically and with their wealth would come political influence. Much like Wall Street in the United States, the Shanxi piaohao influenced the entire Chinese economy. Ultimately with the ensuing chaos of the Boxer Rebellion and Nationalist Revolution, many of these early banks failed and their history was forgotten.
Director Christina Yao wished to tell a story of these forgotten banks and also make a critique of the corruption that frequently comes with such economic power. The movie follows the Kang family, headed by Lord Kang who has four sons. Due to a series of accidents the third son, Third Master as he is called (It's Chinese naming convention), ends up the heir to the Kang family bank. Ostensibly the Shanxi piaohao held to high Confucian standards of morality and proper action, however power ultimately corrupts and we see that the Kang family piaohao under the elder Kang has followed less than reputable practices. The opulence of the Kang family and their branch managers is contrasted with the hardship of the working classes. The elder Kang goes so far as to stock up on vast quantities of salt to sell at great profit when people need it the most. The younger Kang disagrees with his father's business practices, believing that they should behave in an upright and righteous manner. The difference between father and son is best exemplified by their choice in bank manager. The elder Kang favors Manager Qui, an utterly corrupt businessman raised from a past as a poor farm boy. The elder Kang favors Qui because he can easily be controlled through fear, threatening to fire Qui for his corrupt practices unless he does as Kang wishes. The younger Kang prefers Manager Dai, an honest and competent businessman who follows the same Confucian ideals of upright and righteous actions. The conflict between father and son is the core of the conflict as their family bank tries to survive the political turmoil.
Empire of Silver also has a love story, a plot involving women's rights, and this is where I get the main problem with the movie. It has about three or four different plots that it tries to do, but it doesn't blend them together very well. Empire of Silver ultimately lacks focus, trying to do too many things and none of them particularly well. The transition between scenes is downright jarring at times because we shift from the romance plot to the banking plot back to the romance plot. If there is one flaw about Empire of Silver it is its lack of focus that fails to create a cohesive story. One final poor choice is white subtitles because of the occasional white backgrounds. It's not a consistent problem but annoying when it does happen.
HOWEVER, this is not to say this film is not good. The sheer amount of effort that went into this film is utterly...oh my god. The film was shot entirely on location in China, using multiple buildings and structures that have stood for hundreds of years. In an era where entire films are made on soundstages I really respect someone taking the time and effort to go somewhere to film. Especially in regions as remote as the Gobi desert. Furthermore, they used multiple antique costumes and props. Jade pendants, cap badges and rings, authentic costume materials and antique furniture was used. Pretty much everything you see in the film, building, clothing, furniture, even the freaking teacups are either antiques or modeled off of authentic antiques. They did a really great job of depicting late Qing dynasty China and really pulled out all the stops for this film. I give them an A for effort but a C for actual results. It's just really frustrating that the result didn't seem to match their effort.
Ultimately my opinion on this film is that they all did a fantastic job, but how the story was put together was seriously lacking. If you're a fan of Chinese history or interested in learning about Qing Dynasty China and the Shanxi piaohao then I'd recommend this film. Despite the remarkable effort put forth by cast and crew, I found the film unexceptional. An interest in history or China is a must to keep your interest in this movie. Also, it is Chinese-language and subtitled, but I'm used to reading subtitles so it didn't bother me. I'll give them three sheep for the amazing effort.
The film will be available for viewing in the New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Toronto areas starting June 3rd. Information about viewings in other areas can be found here.
Adventurer's Rule #19: Always have a handy hiding spot for your treasure.