Aaron Kwok stars in "Empire of Silver." (HanWay Films )
As a period evocation, Christina Yao's ambitious feature debut "Empire of Silver" is flawless, richly and authentically detailed and superbly photographed. But her adaptation of "The Silver Valley," a three-volume book by Cheng Yi, who also worked with Yao on the screenplay, makes for unwieldy melodrama, rather than the enthralling epic it might have been.
Set against the turbulent dawning of modern China, the film spans the Boxer Rebellion and the crumbling of the Qing Dynasty. The story centers on Third Master (Aaron Kwok), the reluctant heir to his family's banking empire and a man in conflict with his powerful father, Master Kang (TieLin Zhang), who has stolen away the woman he loves and married her. The anguished romance between Third Master and Madame Kang (Hao Lei) ultimately drives the woman to desperate action; she is aided by an American minister's wife (Jennifer Tilly), with whom she appears to have a most provocative relationship.
Time lavished on outlining the history and customs of the bankers of the Shanxi province, who exerted great control of the country's finances, would have been better spent fine-tuning the plot. Still, Zhang is the film's linchpin, and he's able to reveal in Master Kang an unexpected capacity for self-awareness and change.
"Empire of Silver" has enough going for it to make it likely worth the effort for fans of Asian cinema, but it does seem an opportunity missed.
"Empire of Silver." No MPAA rating. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. At selected theaters.