Sunday, December 4, 2011

Empire of Silver - Movie Review and Director Q&A

I was able to see this movie at a recent screening which featured a Q&A with the director herself. You will find some of her thoughts on the movie and answers to audience questions at the end of my review.

First time director Christina Yao has put together a beautiful movie that is equal parts love story, coming of age tale, and historical drama. Set in China during the late 1800's, Empire of Silver is the story of the Kang family and the banking empire that has been part of their family for generations.

The story primarily revolves around Third Master (third son of the family) and the relationships he has with his father Lord Kang, his brothers, and a mother in law that he shares a secret past with. Third Master fell in love with an English teacher he was not supposed to have a relationship with and, as punishment for this forbidden act, Lord Kang took her from him to be his own wife.

Business is ultimately pushed to the forefront for Third Master when a series of events eliminate the other Kang brothers from becoming heir to the family bank. Lord Kang decides it is now time to take his third son, who has avoided any responsibility and is disinterested in anything besides his next drink, and reshape him in his own image as a leader and warrior.

This sets Third Master on a path of rebellion as he wants nothing to do with running a family and business both of which he sees as corrupt and ineffective. After a pilgrimage to the home of his ancestors and a series of life changing events that help him learn from his troubled past, he returns with a renewed purpose and vision for how to reshape both business and family.

On the banking side of the story, there are immediate parallels to the volatility of today's markets as war and uncertainty create economic decline and poverty rules the majority of the population. The movie does a great job of showing how an economy set in history can collapse amid speculation and false values just as it has today. It was very interesting to see this parallel set during a time when honor and tradition were valued more than anything else.

After watching Empire of Silver and thinking about how well crafted it appears on screen, I was very surprised when I found out that Ms. Yao had no previous film making experience as her previous efforts were in theater. The scale of this project is huge and, although visually stunning throughout, the director seemed to have some issues with telling a story this elaborate.

There were more than a couple times when I was confused about what was going on and even who I was seeing on the screen, but once the story gets established and begins to move forward, the movie has a much better flow.

Its almost as if you can see the director getting better over the course of the movie and, by the end, you are very happy to have been able to watch both Ms. Yao and Third Master on their parallel journeys of discovery and growth.

During a Q&A session after the screening I attended, the director had a lot to say about the making of her first feature film and very graciously answered any and all questions that were asked by the audience. Here are some of the highlights of what I was able to jot down or remember of the conversation.

First and foremost, Empire of Silver is about the transformation of this man. It was very important to balance the historical aspects of the film (banking and politics) with the emotional impact of Third Master's personal struggle with love and family, otherwise the movie might as well have been just a documentary.

A very important ingredient to making this film was to use real locations in China and actual antique props whenever possible. A sense of reality and scale was key to showing what these people went through during these times and without this sense of realism, would have lost a lot of believability and would have come off looking more like a TV show instead of a major motion picture.

She also pointed out how the hundreds of camels used for the Gobi Desert scenes had to travel two nights and one day both to and from a remote location (Ming Sha Shan) for just one day of shooting.

Ms. Yao expressed great pleasure in working with such a great cast of actors and especially the star of her film, Aaron Kwok. During a moment where he was acting alone, a pack of vicious wolves would later be animated in to the scene, Aaron put himself so much in to the moment that he scared himself in to running out of the shot.

Here's hoping this film, which has won many awards and been featured in numerous film festivals around the world, will continue to gain an audience that will grow to appreciate what an achievement it truly is. If this is the first of what Christina Yao will be giving movie audiences, I can't wait to see what she has in store for us in the future.

Director Christina Yao and myself following post screening Q&A.

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