Turmoil engulfs Chinese dynasty
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, June 3, 2011
A capitalist epic from a land that was soon to go communist, “Empire of Silver” follows the travails of a Shanxi banking dynasty in the early 20th century. The movie is occasionally muddled and always melodramatic, yet it’s pictorially compelling, thanks to dramatic locations and exacting art direction.
The tale is set mostly in China’s mountainous north and arid west, and begins with a camel train in the desert. The country has no central bank or paper currency, so commerce is largely financed by the Kangs, who are experts in the trade and transportation of silver. Even with the Boxer Rebellion’s threat, the dynasty’s loot moves reliably across mountains, rivers and wastelands.
The patriarch, iron-willed Lord Kang (Zhang Tielin), thinks he has guaranteed his succession by having four sons. But after mishaps sideline three of the boys, Kang must turn to his least businesslike offspring, known simply as Third Master (Hong Kong pop star/actor Aaron Kwok).
Third Master is introduced while idly painting in wine on a woman’s bare back, but he’s not merely a wastrel. He withdrew from the family business after his father married Third Master’s true love (Hao Lei, star of “Summer Palace,” the great 2005 film about students at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre). Madame Kang still pines for Third Master, and her marriage to his father is one of several plot points that aren’t adequately explained.
Madame Kang speaks English and is friendly with an American missionary (Jennifer Tilly) whose marriage is also troubled. The two women’s relationship eventually raises the possibility that Madame Kang (and maybe even Third Master) might escape to the United States.
First, though, the third Kang will have many adventures, only some of them financial. He faces down the occasional run on the family bank, but also a pack of marauding, computer-generated wolves that are — visually, at least — the movie’s least convincing characters.
If the story is sometimes hard to follow, that’s not just because of the large cast of characters and the sometimes disorienting flashbacks. Taiwanese-born director and co-writer Christina Yao clearly struggled to condense the script’s source, a three-volume novel titled “The Silver Valley.”
A troubled undertaking that was eventually rescued by “The Last Emperor” producer Jeremy Thomas, “Empire of Silver” might not have been released in the United States if not for the small portion of dialogue in English. Yet what distinguishes the movie are pictures.
The interiors are furnished with genuine antiques and the exteriors set amid extraordinary landscapes, and both are splendidly photographed. Yao’s first attempt at cinematic storytelling doesn’t amount to much, but she has crafted images you can take to the bank.
Contains violence, sexual situations and partial nudity. In Mandarin with English subtitles.