China, 1899: Following the tragic kidnapping of his brother’s wife, 'Third Master' reluctantly submits to pressure from his overbearing father. Powerful bank-owner Lord Kang is determined to prepare Third Master for financial leadership by molding his son into his own image. The ruthless businessman tries to convince his son to choose a proven unscrupulous bank manager over a more honest one. But the idealistic Third Master has always questioned his father's autocratic rule and ethics. The tense relationship is further complicated by Third Masters undying love for his beautiful young stepmother, his first and only love stolen from him by his own father.
The debut feature by Taiwanese-born stage director Christina Yao, Empire of Silver is visually dazzling but unevenly acted and dramatically wobbly.
Inspired by historical events and compressed from Cheng Yi’s three-volume romance The Silver Valley, it’s a lurid tale of thwarted love, betrayal, sacrifice and father-and-son conflict amid a power struggle among the financial movers-and-shakers in the late 20th century version of China’s Wall Street.
Shot in China’s northern provinces in late 2006, the project languished for a couple of years until it was rescued by The Last Emperor producer Jeremy Thomas, who served as executive producer.
The story opens in 1899 when the Qing Dynasty is crumbling and the Boxer Rebellion is being mobilised against Western forces. The imperious Lord Kang (Zhang Tielin) presides over the largest bank in Shanxi province, cleverly controlling the trade and transportation of silver, the major currency.
Kang has four sons but three are ineffective for his purposes: the oldest is a deaf mute, the second son is paralysed after falling off a horse and the fourth suffers a breakdown after his bride is kidnapped and murdered by his vengeful former lover.
So the old man reluctantly appoints as his heir the only able-bodied son known as Third Master (Aaron Kwok), an artistic fellow who is ill-equipped for the task. Moreover, the young man still carries a torch for his dad’s second wife, the gorgeous Madame Kang (Hao Lei), who was his English tutor.
Flashbacks show Third Master deflowering his teacher (an experience depicted as both painful and pleasurable) but the narrative doesn’t properly explain why their romance was terminated and how Lord Kang came to marry the young woman.
Madame Kang still pines for her stepson, a set-up which sounds icky and it is. The main intrigue lies in discovering how this messy three-way relationship plays out. Less compelling is the struggle to control the bank involving father, son and two underlings as the country descends into war.
The narrative teams with dramatic incidents including rape, a hysterectomy and deaths, but the impact is often diluted because Yao cuts abruptly to another scene, not allowing some events to play out until their climax.
One sequence in the desert is laughable rather than scary as phoney, CGI-created wolves which look like they wandered off the set of Twilight attack Third Master and a companion.
And the storyline involving Jennifer Tilly as Madame Kang’s confidant, an unhappily married American missionary, seems to have been butchered in the editing.
Lei is splendid as the luminous beauty in the middle of the tug-of-war, suitably matched by Hong Kong actor/pop star Kwok as the brooding Third Master. But in the pivotal role of Lord Kang, too often Zhang resorts to grimaces, shouting, bulging eyes and hand waving when a more controlled, nuanced performance would have better served his character.
The spectacular wide-screen cinematography by Anthony Pun makes maximum use of the locations and Yee Chung Man’s impeccable production design and costumes.
As for the parallels between modern banking practices and those of Imperial China, well, it’s quaint to hear bankers of that long-ago era speak of the "principle of righteousness".