Long-time theater director Christina Yao aims for the epic with her first foray into feature filmmaking, Empire of Silver. The Kangs are a family of bankers in China's Shanxi province at the dawn of the 20th century; they struggle to save their dynasty from revolution and internal strife. Pictorially striking and impressive in its fidelity to period detail, Empire of Silver has the look to match Yao's ambitions. But this adaptation of Cheng Yi's romance trilogy The Silver Valley is an historical drama so swamped by its soap opera crescendos, no resonant story can survive the wet. Hardcore period movie fans and those interested in the history may turn out, but box office prospects look light for this limited release.
"Third Master" is heir to a banking dynasty he holds in contempt; resentment for his ruthless father, Master Kang (Tielin Zhang), has poisoned his affections for work and family. Unable to be with the woman he loves, Third has made hedonism his life's work, but when it becomes apparent that none of his three brothers is fit to run the family business, he reluctantly returns home. He arrives in time for an extraordinarily difficult era for the country and the bank, an age of war and rebellion and a time of stark contrasts between the rich and the poor.
The story is actually far more complicated than that, it's a knot of narrative threads that include sexual jealousy between father and son, Lord Kang's battles with his unhappy wife Madame Kang (Hao Lei) and the grotesque consequences of an artificial salt shortage. One subplot involves Lord Kang and Third's argument over who they should choose to be their top manager with Lord Kang favoring obsequious farm boy Manager Qiu (Ding Zhi Cheng) over the much more competent but also more ambitious Manager Dai (Lei Zhen Yu). Jennifer Tilly shows up in a pointless role as a Christian missionary and Madame Kang's confidante.
To try to persuade the audience of the richness of the story, Yao employs three composers, Seikô Nagaoka, Lin Hai, and Cong Su, an Oscar winner for 1987's Empire of the Sun. The bombast fails to convince us that the Kang's saga is anything more than shabby melodrama. It's most telling that the arcane rules governing banking and bank managers at the turn of the century are more intriguing than anything in the family tale.
Distributor: NeoClassics Films Ltd.
Director: Christina Yao
Cast: Aaron Kwok, Tielin Zhang, Lei Hao, Zhicheng Ding, Lei Zhen Yu, Jennifer Tilly
Screenwriters: Christina Yao, Cheng Yi
Producers: Peggy Chiao, Christina Yao
Genre: Drama; Mandarin-language, subtitled
Running time: 112 min.
Release date: June 3 ltd.