‘Empire of Silver’: Banking on morals

May 31, 2011


Visually stunning and dramatically surprising, Christina Yao’s “Empire of Silver” is a self-assured debut film that manages to be epic in scale and intimate in focus.

Based on true stories about China during the Qing Dynasty in the late 19th Century, “Empire of Silver” tells a story of banking intrigue informed by family values. But they’re unlike values or business practices that you’ll find in contemporary banking.

You only have to compare the morality of the characters in “Empire of Silver” with that of the bankers in the film adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s “Too Big to Fail” on HBO. On the one hand, there’s a fear of failing the customer; on the other, it’s a “what’s in it for me?” mentality.

Yao focuses on the family of Lord Kang, which runs the largest bank in Shanxi Province in 1899, at the time of the Boxer Rebellion against Western forces that are trying to shape China’s governance. The families that run these banks are an insular lot because the custom demands it. The administrators are expected to be moral exemplars: no divorce is allowed, no extramarital dalliance, no use of opium or anything else that might call their character – and honesty – into question. A shame on one is a shame on all.

But Lord Kang (Tielin Zhang), the patriarch of the central clan, faces a crisis. His oldest son is a deaf mute and his third son is a wastrel who wants nothing to do with the business. But his second son is paralyzed after a fall while riding a horse – and then his fourth (and last son) suffers a breakdown after the kidnapping and murder of his wife. So it falls to the third son, Third Master (Aaron Kwok), to get himself together and go to work for the family business.

The hurdles he faces are numerous. For starters, the bank has been betrayed by one of its managers, who has murdered a courtesan, then taken his own life, rather than deal with revelation of his illicit activities. So it is up to Third Master to decide between an ambitious manager of one of their branches and a more cautious manager, who has been banished because of a mistake he made.

He also has to deal with his father’s own tendency toward ruthlessness. Having reformed himself, Third Master takes seriously his father’s credo about conducting business the way you would conduct yourself as a person in life. Yet he finds that his father is willing to bend the rules, to profiteer from a shortage of salt – and to be a tyrant in his personal life.

Specifically, Third Master resents his father’s relationship with Third Master’s young stepmother – who Lord Kang married after his first wife’s death. The young woman was the English tutor brought in to teach Lord Kang’s four sons – and Third Master’s adult feelings for his former teacher are not just academic.

To her credit, Yao gets a sweeping, fluid look to the film, with a camera that is constantly on the prowl. She creates stunning, artful images, whether setting her action against stark and stunning landscapes or in carefully decorated interior spaces. She makes the natural settings seem rugged and wild and the man-made backdrops mysterious and lush.

Her storytelling is occasionally off-focus, however. The obvious climaxes in the film are ignored, in favor of a more expository approach, with characters talking out their thinking, rather than taking action. That seems to be a deliberate choice on her part because she does it more than once.

Still, “Empire of Silver” is a dazzlingly visual film, one marked by a thoughtful approach to a tale of business and interpersonal intrigue. It’s a movie about business with honor, a concept that doesn’t seem to penetrate the worldview of avaricious practitioners of free-market philosophy.

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