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Originally published December 1, 2011 at 3:01 PM | Page modified December 1, 2011 at 8:30 PM

Movie review

A polished, melodramatic 'Empire of Silver'

A movie review of "Empire of Silver," Christine Yao's would-be epic about a banking family's gradual loss of control in China. It's more effective in emotional impact than narrative complexity.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

'Empire of Silver,' with Aaron Kwok, Ding Zhi Cheng, Tie Lin Zhang, Lei Hao, Jennifer Tilly. Directed by Christina Yao, from a screenplay by Yao and Cheng Yi. 113 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains some nudity and violence). In English and Mandarin, with English subtitles. Pacific Place.

quotes Although filmed in China this is not a movie produced in People's Republic of China;... Read more
quotes Enlightening information. Thanks. (I suspected that the film was not from the People's... Read more

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MOVIE REVIEW 2.5 stars

Smack in the middle of "Empire of Silver," a sketchy but oddly engaging historical drama from China, comes the most unexpected of many unexpected moments.

The film's ambivalent hero, Third Master (Aaron Kwok), reluctant heir to a banking business at the end of the 19th century, is in the Gobi Desert one night with one of his family's managers (Ding Zhi Cheng).

Out of nowhere, a huge pack of hungry wolves appears, surrounding them.

The two fellows fight them off with fire, swords and, strangely, the sound of ringing metal. But the shock of the whole thing — a sudden horror scene in a story about China's banking practices during years of great hardship, the Boxer Rebellion, war and the disintegration of the Qing Dynasty — leaves one wondering, what kind of movie is this?

The question arises often. Certainly, "Empire of Silver" has epic leanings (it's based on a three-volume work by Cheng Yi, who wrote the screenplay with director Christina Yao), with lots of swooping crane shots and a multigenerational tale told through an overall handsome production.

Yet the film is more melodrama than epic (it doesn't help that American actress Jennifer Tilly weirdly pops in and out as a major character's shoulder to cry on). It also lacks the nuance to make a complex story fully understood. Yao leaves those of us with little knowledge of subtle sociocultural and family business practices more than a century ago in China confused.

What is clear is that Third Master, dissolute and disengaged from his father's business — consisting of several branches of a bank with huge assets, and a fortune in silver hidden away — is pulled in like "The Godfather's" Michael Corleone when none of his brothers can take the reins.

Third Master's understandable resistance is rooted in a bizarre tragedy. His father (Tie Lin Zhang), obsessed with churning out potential heirs, has married the beautiful, educated woman (Lei Hao) who had been Third Master's lover during days of youthful, wide-eyed innocence.

The lingering, anguished romance between the sundered couple is more soapy than Shakespearean, but it provides good fodder for Yao's most obvious strength as a director: emotional immediacy. The first time we see actor Kwok — in abject, James Dean mode — refer to Hao's tender character as "mother," the moment is as sad as it is jarring. A later image of an exhausted and resigned Hao resting her head on Kwok's back is undeniably stirring.

"Empire of Silver's" secret weapon, however, is Zhang, whose complicated patriarch ultimately proves sympathetic and moving despite his boorish machinations. It's always a great gift when an actor can convey a character's unspoken thoughts on his face and in his movements. Zhang does this repeatedly, signaling a gradual moral evolution and increasing humanity.

The timeliness of "Empire of Silver" during America's Occupy movement, and amid harsh feelings about the financial industry, is startling.

This is a story in which bank executives lavish large bonuses on themselves while people outside struggle for basic necessities and rising prices. Self-preservation for some trumps the survival of all.

What, if anything, the film's final burst of idealism offers universally is hard to say. But it feels good to see in these acrimonious days.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@gmail.com

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