Historical epics from China so often deal with either war or the martial arts that the notion of a lavishly mounted multigenerational saga about the Chinese banking business might seem just a bit bizarre. But that's the story Christina Yao has chosen to tackle in her first feature film, Baiyin Diguo (aka Empire of Silver), and between the film's fascination with money, family, and difficult romantic relationships, this plays like the biggest soap opera in the history of Chinese cinema, though like many soap operas you'll need plenty of patience as the film creeps its way to the finale.
Set in China's Shanxi province (the nation's financial district) near the turn of the century, Empire of Silver begins as Lord Kang (Zhang Tielin), the head of a powerful banking firm, wants one of his four sons to take over the family business. However, two are out of the running because of handicaps, and when another falls victim to kidnappers who abduct, rape, and murder his wife, destiny chooses headstrong Third Master (Aaron Kwok) to take the job. He's not very interested, though, due in part to a bitter rivalry between himself and his father, but he bends to Kang's will and takes on the business. Ten years later, between the decline of the Qing Dynasty and the Boxer Rebellion, the Kang family's banks are teetering on the brink of disaster, until Third Master and his colleagues come up with a plan to welcome working-class customers into their banks. When this plan is coupled with the introduction of paper currency and the machinations of unscrupulous underlings, however, it leads to a near disaster that forces Third Master to make a difficult decision about business ethics. Third Master also struggles with crushing personal disappointment when Lord Kang marries a beautiful and much younger woman (Hao Lei) who was once his third son's lover.
Empire of Silver is a visual feast; the period production design by Yee Chung-man is beautifully executed and the burnished tones of Anthony Pun's cinematography are the ideal match for the style and the tone of this film, as the characters make their way through a period of change in which little can be counted on. However, while the movie is splendid to look at, it's not as impressive to sit through or think about. The screenplay -- adapted from a Chinese historical novel by its author, Cheng Yi, and director, Christina Yao -- is often sketchy on the details of who the characters are and just what they're hoping to accomplish (the fact that Lord Kang's sons don't even have proper names, just numbers, is telling), and the pacing is erratic, with the story speeding up and slowing down throughout like a car caught in a traffic jam. The cast makes the best with what they're given, but leading man Aaron Kwok is often shackled by his character's failure to do much besides look strong and concerned (he and Hao Lei both shine in a powerful love scene), and Jennifer Tilly's brief appearance as an American missionary is more puzzling than anything else -- though she's not at all bad in her role, she unwittingly calls attention to herself by being so remarkably out of place. Christina Yao's previous background has been in directing and acting for the legitimate theater, so it's curious that the acting and character development (often the most important part of a stage drama) prove to be among Empire of Silver's greatest weakness, while the physical look of the film -- something many stage directors struggle with when they move to the screen -- is where this picture truly shines. There's a fascinating story lurking in Empire of Silver, but Yao doesn't quite know how to bring it across, though her command of the visuals makes her a name worth watching in the future.