EMPIRE OF SILVER
China, 1899. A hedonistic young man, Third Master (Aaron Kwok) must assume the role of heir to a banking empire he cares little about. Following the tragic kidnapping of his brother's wife, Third Master reluctantly submits to pressure from his overbearing father. Powerful bank-owner Lord Kang (Tielin Zhang) is determined to prepare Third Master for financial leadership by molding his son into his own image. The tense relationship is further complicated by Third Master's undying love for his beautiful young stepmother (Lei Hao), his first and only love stolen from him by his own father. Embarking on a metaphysical journey, Third Master must decide whether to follow his father's path or find his own. Greed, deception and jealousy surface under the pressures of war and the impending change from silver to paper bills ... (Inspired by historical events.)
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
"We live only to continue our bloodline," Lord Kang (Tie Lin Zhang) tells his son, Third Master (Aaron Kwok) as they prepare for a war that endangers not only their bank's horde of silver but the lives of the family. To continue the bloodline at all costs is Kang's mantra, and he is determined to make it his son's, too. Third Master* has resisted his father's way of doing things, and not surprisingly since the old man forced Third Master's lover (Lei Hao) to marry him, making her Third Master's step mother.
The complicated romance that punctuates the story adds spice (and a twist), but it's a film essentially about the banking family and their machinations at a time of rapid change in China. The setting is the old 'Wall Street of China' with a touch of the Godfathers about it.
The occasional narration to string the story together is told from a contemporary point in time, by the descendant of Lord Kang, framing the film as a farewell letter to his own grandchildren, telling them to be proud of their moral heritage. It layers the film with some fine texture.
Christina Yao's debut feature is incredibly ambitious: she is working with a screenplay adapted from a book, always a challenge in itself, but in this case made treacherously difficult by its complexity and gravity. Yao's team work wonders in making the film look sensational, and performances are effective, notably the sensitive Lei Hao as the beautiful but troubled young woman in the impossible triangle, and Tei Lin Zhang as Lord Kang, family patriarch and banking ogre.
She handles the erotic and tender scenes very well - there are a handful of those - but the main story is a tad cumbersome in the telling and somewhat simplistic at times. All the same, it's a fascinating part of Chinese history - with implications for the rest of the world. Yiu Ming Pun's cinematography is superb, both technically (lighting, etc) and creatively, always judging the best framing for maximum emotional impact.
* Third Master is a nickname in the system used by pre-modern Chinese families. The first son is called First, second is called Second, by the parents. And if the family is well-off, people of lower social status would refer to the male members as "master." This became a custom because Chinese families used to have many children. Today, however, the number-as-nickname system is no longer in practice.
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EMPIRE OF SILVER (M)
CAST: Aaron Kwok, Tie Lin Zhang, Hao Lei, Jennifer Tilly, Zhicheng Ding, John Paisley,
PRODUCER: Chiao Hsiung Ping, Christina Yao
DIRECTOR: Christina Yao
SCRIPT: Christina Yao (book by Cheng Yi)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Yiu Ming Pun
EDITOR: Humphrey Dixon
MUSIC: Seiko Nagaoka, Cong Su
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Chung Man Yee
RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: China Lion
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 24, 2012
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