Gorgeous but uninvolving is “Empire of Silver,” writer-director Christina Yao’s ambitiously scaled period piece in which members of a powerful banking family experience social turbulence, business crises and personal shakeups caused by their own potboiler tendencies and occasional deeper stirrings.
Even an abacus gets an exquisite close-up in this melodrama set in China’s early-20th-century financial world. But the story just doesn’t come alive.
Combining financial drama with family saga in its stronger moments and history lesson and soap opera far too often, Yao’s fact-inspired costumer opens in 1899, when China’s Qing dynasty is crumbling and the Boxer rebellions, fighting Western forces, are abrew.
The setting is Shangxi Province, home to China’s equivalent of Wall Street.
Adapted by Yao from a three-volume novel by Cheng Yi (who shares the screenplay credit), the story follows a family called the Kangs, who operate a major bank.
Heading the clan is Lord Kang (Lielin Zhang), an autocrat who extols the industry’s Confucian standards but isn’t above intimidating underlings and hoarding silver and salt.
Conflict arises when Lord Kang, after misfortune befalls his other offspring, appoints “spineless good-for-nothing” son Third Master (Aaron Kwok), as his heir.
In the business arena, the initially reluctant “Third” develops into an independent, altruistic leader whose convictions impel him to defy his strong-willed father’s wishes.
Domestically, Third can’t shake his feelings for his young stepmother (Hao Lei), whom he hoped to marry before Lord Kang stole her.
Yao, who has cited “The Godfather” and “King Lear” as examples she had in mind when writing her script, aims high, serving up costumes, camels, angry mobs, banking ceremonies, morality codes and martial-arts-performing boys, among other specifics.
Visually, she triumphs. The sweeping vistas of the Gobi desert, in particular, are impressive. Unfortunately, however, the human drama lacks passion and dimension. Yao’s screenplay has a stuffed book-adaptation feel as it delivers kidnapping, rape, suicide and madness connect-the-dots style, along with romantic flashbacks, political unrest, a missionary played by Jennifer Tilly, the transition from silver to paper money, and a pack of computer-generated howling wolves.
A theater director making her feature-film debut, Yao keeps things polished and respectable to the point of counterproductivity, and the actors don’t supply the missing juice. The father and son play like personifications of ideologies instead of full-fledged characters. The romantic leads generate little spark.
Minus the operatic and insightful qualities of the above-cited masterworks or the between-the-lines texture of the films of melodramatists like Denmark’s Susanne Bier, the film suggests a museum exhibition. You can’t take your eyes off this movie, but you don’t feel stirred.
Starring Aaron Kwok, Tielin Zhang, Hao Lei
Written by Christina Yao, Cheng Yi
Directed by Christina Yao
Running time 1 hour and 52 minutes