Judge Daryl Loomis's empire is made entirely of brass and tin foil.
We don't risk our own blood.
Between 1899 and 1901, the Boxer Rebellion shook the establishment of China. It was a nationalist movement that despised the imperialism of Western Europe and America, which had wormed its way into Chinese business, finance, and religion. While the government, largely in league with the Western factions, successfully squelched the rebellion, much blood was shed on both sides and the group made their mark on future revolutions that would usher in the Chinese government that exists today (although western industry concerns have dialed some of that back). It is under the shadow of the Boxers that the interesting but flawed Empire of Silver takes place.
The aging financial magnate Master Kang (Tielin Zhang, Hero) must choose a successor to his business, but when his first two sons are debilitated by various tragedies, he is forced to look on his youngest, called Third Master (Aaron Kwok, After This Our Exile), a man whose kind predilections do not bode well for the continuance of the empire. He's a brooding, artistic soul, but worse than anything, he is in love with his tutor, who he romanced before Master Kang stole from him for his own purposes. The new Madame Kang (Lei Hao, The Warlords) still loves Third Master, though, and while he is on a quest of self-awareness in the Gobi Desert, she starts to question all that has happened, leading to tragedy amidst the specter of revolution.
With the romance, the war, and the financial issues, Empire of Silver has enough going on for at least another production, so it's too bad that director Christina Yao, in her first feature film, couldn't focus on one or two of these threads. It would have made a much stronger film. As it is, there is so much going on that all of it becomes muddled in the mix. It becomes an episodic story, more about individual moments than a complete film, with some parts, like the romance story, interesting and affecting, and others left hanging like they belonged in another production.
That problem is especially true in Third Master's journey into the Gobi. This, in itself, has enough at its heart to make for its own feature, but is afforded only a few minutes here. Likewise, despite the early apparent emphasis on the financial industry, it's really only lip service to give credence to the jilted romance and the struggles between father and son. Moreover, the war is so obliquely explained that, without independent knowledge or research on the time period, it may come as a surprise when people start to explain that the Germans are coming.
The story is all haphazardly told, despite a ton of potential, so thankfully there are good performances and top notch production design to raise the level of the movie. In spite of the problems with the story, Yao fully understands the historical basis of the story and dressed the film up with period costumes, sets, and decor that bring the world to life. It looks great, with excellent cinematography and design (aside from a sorry looking CG wolf attack), and the visual juxtaposition of the financiers and the poverty-stricken populace is striking, I just wish the story reflected more of that dichotomy.
Empire of Silver arrives on DVD from NeoClassics in a release of mixed quality. The 2.35:1 image is colorful and bright, showing off the sets and costumes, the best parts of the film, very well. Unfortunately, black levels are a little murky and edges are far fuzzier than I've come to expect from a recent film. The surround sound, though, is much more consistent, even if it's not the most dynamic mix you've ever heard. The dialog and music sound very good, though, and the rear channels give a strong sense of the ambient sound of the world in which they live. Extras are scant, with a photo gallery masquerading as a featurette describing, through subtitles, the original costumes and intricate designs, a more traditional photo gallery, and a trailer as the only supplements.
Empire of Silver is a film with a lot going for it, from the rich background to the locations to the vintage costumes and decorations. For that, there's also a lot to enjoy about it. It's too bad, though, that the story is so broad that there's enough of it for two or three films, and that's without really getting into the revolution that's backing it. The performances and artistic vision are enough, however, for it to warrant a mild recommendation.
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