Empire of Silver Lotus Eaters

Empire of Silver
directed by Christina Yao
released April 23 on DVD, BluRay and VOD via Neoclassics Home Entertainment

China,1899. Banking tycoon Kang has four sons: The eldest is a gentle deaf-mute, the second, a hot-headed man of action. The fourth is a happy newlywed. Then there is the third son, an artistically inclined young man who is wasting his life away in drink and women.

To the aging patriarch, his best bet for continuing the family line and its business seems to lie with the second son; the fourth would also be good. And it’s some family business –– in fact, an empire –– built on a semi-mythical fortune and expanded upon by each successive generation, now employing a network of managers in every major city. The patriarch’s hopes are abruptly dashed when one of his managers’ mistress hatches a plot to kidnap the fourth’s wife. The fourth son suffers a mental breakdown, while the second, in the heat of pursuit, falls off his horse, leaving the third as the only able-bodied heir.

Director Yao deftly weaves gorgeous scenery –– gently curving rows of tiled roofs, heavy wooden columns –– with pulsing masses of human bodies into a mesmerizing visual rhythm. It’s a stylized universe molded by thousands of years of deferential repetition. (All the props and major costumes in the film are antique.) Framed by the darkened wood and silks in shades of gray is a simmering conflict between the old and new: The old man (Tielin Zhang) wants to uphold tradition along the feudal lines while the sensitive son believes in humane and more democratic ways of treating their employees and customers. Then there is the love story at the heart of the film. Madame Kang, the father’s second wife (the luminous Lei Hao), is in love with the third son (Aaron Kwok), who is bound by custom to address his lover as “Mother.” Bondage, mutilation and the whiff of incest: Madame Kang goes as far as to have herself surgically sterilized, then fakes her own death to escape the prison of marriage.

All of this reminds one of the titillating mix of deviant sex and more-oppressed-than-thou feminism that made Gong Li an icon in the 1990s. Is it the history of film censorship that spawned this formula? Or are these filmmakers consciously/subconsciously trying to live up to their country’s reputation as the binder of women’s feet? Although it may inform the viewer of the severely limited options women faced in the cruel patriarchy of Confucian China, Empire of Silver is basically a melodrama, as implausibly extreme as it is unsatisfying. In particular, two shots in the scene of Madame Kang’s faked drowning hang loose: the inconclusiveness of the elder Kang’s expression –– relief? –– and an image of the floating young woman, not quite dead and not quite alive. It could be argued that the ambiguity was purposeful, but these shots are neither enlightening nor emotional, especially when followed by the son’s dramatic reaction, and their redundancy weighs heavily when the supposedly dead woman reveals herself.

And speaking of dramatic, Kwok has a face so dramatic he can make you want to slap him without uttering a word. Also, the music credited to Hai Lin, Cong Su and Seikô Nagaoka is a mawkish mélange of standard historical-drama sounds, rather overbearing and often unnecessary. The effect is distancing, when it should involve the viewer in the story.

Despite these flaws, the film’s sumptuous visuals kept me watching it to the end, and in the meantime taught me something about the banking system of Imperial China at the beginning of the 20th century, and how its powerful merchant class tried to survive the changing times. Some might see Empire of Silver as a manual on how to crack “China, Inc.” Nothing wrong with that –– as long as you remember to find beauty in it, not just kinky sex.
–– Rika Ohara

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