Friday, 24 September 2010

'Empire of Silver' review:

Oliver Stone is not the only filmmaker with an upcoming movie about corruption on Wall Street. Chinese filmmaker Christina Yao also has her eye on many of the same timely themes in her film 'Empire of Silver' ('Baiyin Diguo') – which is set during the Boxer Rebellion in the closing days of the nineteenth century, in Shanxi: then considered the Wall Street of China.

'Empire of Silver' is a story of rivalry, ambition and corruption, centering on a family who control the vast majority of China's silver in the days before paper currency. The film's central focus is on a ruthless and powerful patriarch, Lord Kang (Zhang Tie Lin), and his relationship with his third son, played by Aaron Kwok. The central conflict is set around Lord Kang's demand that his heir consolidates the families wealth and power for the future of his dynasty, whereas the son is more compassionate, and unwilling to follow so closely in his father's footsteps. This is complicated further by the presence of Lord Kang's young wife (Lei Hao), who is also the son's one true love.

In many ways 'Empire of Silver' is everything we have come to expect from products of China's booming film industry. It is beautifully photographed and realised on a large scale, with emphasis on sets and costumes. However, this film is rather light on martial arts compared to the most successful Chinese exports! There is one unnecessary action sequence in the middle section that reeks of lack of confidence in the material's ability to entertain an audience, as two men square off against around thirty unconvincing CGI wolves. There is also a much more relevant and brief skirmish near the film's conclusion. But mainly the film eschews action – focusing on the human drama, the banking crisis and Chinese politics: both familial and international.

This makes for an interesting film, even for someone with a sketchy grasp of Chinese history, such as myself. The lead actors are compelling, with supporting players also decent – including a very small role for Jennifer Tilly as an English teacher.

The film is also quite accomplished in its unflinching depiction of the great poverty suffered by many of China's poorest people. Sometimes this falls into sentimentality, as when we get a shot of a small girl crying to emphasis the plight, but generally this is well handled. Lord Kang is an exploiter of poverty for economic gain, withholding resources to create a demand and raise prices, increasing his profit. He is not so far removed from today's business leaders – giving 'Empire of Silver' a striking relevance. It is a well-intentioned piece of cinema, with the central point being that there is nothing honorable about the accumulation of wealth and power. The noble and heroic deed is ultimately one born of compassion for those at the bottom, rather than ambition and greed – even at the price of lost status.

Unusually for a mainstream Chinese film, 'Empire of Silver' is also quite mature in it's depiction of sex. There was an uproar in China when 'Curse of the Golden Flower' featured, what was deemed, excessive amounts of cleavage. Likewise, the most recent Chinese films I have seen (including the likes of 'Reign of Assassins' and 'Di Renjie', in Venice) do contain female nudity, but usually artfully shot so as to conceal anything that could be deemed more explicit than the lower back. By contrast (and although very tame by Western standards), 'Empire of Silver' is fairly explicit, and its brief love scene is made all the more tender by its relative frankness.

'Empire of Silver' is an intelligent and well-made Chinese drama, which – like every good historical film you could name – works equally well as a story about more recent concerns. It could have done without the silly CGI wolves, which strike me as the most overt insertion of irrelevant action since Toshiro Mifune's aging doctor crippled a gang of heavies midway through Kurosawa's nineteenth century medical epic 'Red Beard'. But other than that, there is little to criticise about this effective and engaging film.

A UK general release is yet to be confirmed for 'Empire of Silver', which has not yet been rated by the BBFC.

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