Arts & Events

Film Review: Empire of Silver: A Local Filmmaker’s Awesome Debut

Review by Gar Smith
Thursday June 02, 2011 - 02:19:00 PM

Empire of Silver opens June 3 at the San Francisco Metreon and AMC Bay Street in Emeryville. 

With her first feature film, Taiwan-born Christina Yao (a Bay Area resident and an established local stage director) has made a spectacular leap into the front ranks of cinema’s great artists. Empire of Sand approaches Lawrence of Arabia for historical sweep, moral narrative and sheer cinematic brilliance. From the first awe-inspiring shot, you know you’re in the hands of a master. If there was one criticism of Empire, it might be that this film is almost too gorgeous for its own good. A dozen times during the press screening we attended, hardened critics involuntarily gasped aloud at the film’s beauty. The extraordinary cinematic eye-scapes prompted repeated outbursts of “Yow!” (But, in fairness, that exclamation should be spelled “Yao!”) 

In the very first scene, the camera slowly pans across an endless red plain that stretches to a distant horizon of low, brown mountains. As the pan continues — and continues and continues — it slowly dawns on viewers that the camera must have already tracked full circle and there is nothing else on Earth to be seen but this endless barren landscape. 

And then the camera cuts to a lone figure. Standing in the middle of several thousand square miles of Chinese desert, the character’s voice reflects: “The world is large. How much can one man matter?” At this point, the camera lifts to the sky like a vast curtain rising on an epic play and the story begins. 

We find ourselves in 1899, the last days of the 19th century, where old cultural values are being challenged and overturned. But instead of another tale of Emperors and competing warlords, the heroes and villains of this Empire are a powerful Shanxi family of bankers, lead by the imperious Lord Kang. It is a time of change: the concept of paper fiat money is being introduced and the moral code of Confucianism is being replaced by the expedience of Legalism. 

Kang has four sons: a quick-tempered warrior, a soft touch, a sad-eyed wastrel and a young man off to a new life with his young bride. Who will inherit the family’s burden as silver-keepers for the Qing Dynasty? 

After a series of misfortunes thins the herd, the mantle falls on the unwilling shoulders of the third son, “Third Master.” Naturally, it is the son with the greatest distaste for power who is fated to become the new lord of China’s Wall Street. 

But there is something odd about the way Third Master haunts the family mansion — especially when in the presence of Lord Kang’s young wife. As the story unfolds, we discover a twisted Oedipal relationship that is waaaay beyond complex. 

The hedonistic Third Master is played by charismatic Hong Kong heartthrob Aaron Kwok (a popular musician, dancer and singer who is known as “the Michael Jackson of Hong Kong”). He is perfectly matched by the amazing Hao Lei as Lord Kang’s wife. The actors share a love scene that includes an astonishingly long single-take close-up that never leaves their faces. In the middle of this scene, at just the perfect moment, Hao Lei conjures a single tear that wells in her eye and spills down her cheek. If acting were an Olympic event, Hao Lei would take the gold. 

While Director Yao can wow you with long, intimate moments, her film also dazzles with images that must have taken days to stage but only occupy a few moments of screen time. Her camera becomes a character in itself, spinning and skating through the air like a martial artist doing wire-work. In one amazing visual, the camera rises from an ancient courtyard and drifts slowly over tilted tile rooftops until it reaches a huge fortified wall that marks the boundary of the city. And as the camera continues to pan, we see, standing outside the wall in the moonlight, a silent crowd of 3,000 peasants. The spectacle of the massed crowd lasts barely a second on the screen. 

Empire was filmed inside authentic 500-year-old buildings (many of which are now museums) and the actors wore authentic clothing and unique, irreplaceable jewelry on loan from private collections and China’s great museums. The film was shot in 13 counties and cities over the course of four months in four provinces. Computer graphics were used to carefully erase any evidence of modern skylines. 

Computer graphics likely played a role in a harrowing scene that finds Third Master and a business partner surrounded by a pack of wolves in a moonless desert. Their means of their escape is ingenious. (Lesson to backpackers everywhere: when traveling in wolf country, always carry at least two instruments made of steel.) 

Empire of Silver has won more than a dozen international film awards since its release in 2009. Director Yao, who previously had only made a couple of short films, makes a point of praising Executive Producer Jeremy Thomas (the money man behind The Last Emperor, Fast Food Nation, Naked Lunch, and 13 Assassins), the "one man" with the vision — and the money — to make the difference that brought Christina Yao's monumental movie to the screen.