Film Review: Empire of Silver

Handsome Chinese costume actioner mixing power struggles, financial crises and romance a century ago may impress American audiences, but story overkill and subtleties of Chinese culture and history confound.

At least one tip-off to Western audiences that this China/Taiwan/Hong Kong film will be high-quality is that Jeremy Thomas (producer of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Oscar-winning, Chinese-themed The Last Emperor) is the executive producer. Made a few years ago, Empire of Silver is indeed a sweeping period spectacle with plenty of lavish widescreen attributes, action-packed production set-pieces and impressive performances. But murky storytelling and casual allusions to late-18th/early-19th century Chinese history may cool the essential word of mouth needed to attract filmgoers.

Inspired by historic events, the story turns on the plight of a powerful banking family whose control is being challenged by political turmoil, social unrest and dirty linen at home. Master Kang (Tielin Zhang) is one of the country’s chief merchant bankers controlling the flow of money in a system based largely on silver holdings physically stored in the banks. Kang, ruthless and decadent, has a number of heirs, including several sons clearly unfit to carry on. He favors Third Master (Hong Kong superstar Aaron Kwok), a son with more noble interests.

These include a need to lead an ascetic life in the Gobi desert and maybe reconnect with his own true love, who happens to be his stepmother Madame Kang (Hao Lei), stolen from him by his own father. Kang pressures Third Master to bring on board unscrupulous Manager Dai (Lei Zhen Yu), but his son favors Manager Qiu (Ding Zhi Cheng), a kind gentleman he has befriended.

Events beyond the family’s turmoil are raging. China is in the midst of great change. Paper money is replacing the need to hoard silver; the pro-nationalistic, anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion unrest takes hold; the centuries-old Chinese dynasties are dying; invasions are afoot.
Into this mix comes Mrs. Landdeck (Jennifer Tilly) and her pastor husband (Jonathan Kos-Read), who are forced to flee China. They take with them Madame Kang, with whom Third Master has amorously reunited.

An important and elderly off-screen character provides voiceover and the film’s moralistic raison d’etre, but not the connective tissue needed. There’s too much going on amongst too many people and against a murky historic canvas.

The film does offer plenty of visual pleasures via gorgeous landscapes, handsome sets and dramatic overhead shots. One truly spectacular, digitally realized scene has Third Master battling wolves in the desert.

Yao notches a remarkable and daring directorial feature debut in tackling a film of such epic proportions, but seems unsure of her narrative thread. Is it the fall of a great family and banking institution, the struggle of a decent and idealistic hero, or the degeneration of a doomed romance? Or is Empire of Silver simply a tale of survival and the transcendental power of wisdom and tradition?

Demanding audiences, like most viewers, need an emotional connection to their heroes and a comfortable understanding of the external forces (social, historic, etc.) impacting onscreen lives. But Empire of Silver, so impressive in execution and intentions, again proves that more can be less.