Stateliness begets inertia in Empire of Silver, a turn-of-the-century Chinese epic whose reserved tone and regal atmosphere is suffocating. In 1899, in the northern province of Shanxi (the supposed Wall Street of China), banking is ruled by Lord Kang (Tielin Zhang), whose 100-year-old family business is complicated by foreign forces and their conflict with Boxer rebels. An even more pressing dilemma is posed by his desire to bequeath his empire to his sons, as the oldest is a deaf-mute, the second oldest is permanently disabled, and the fourth suffers a breakdown from the rape-suicide death of his wife. That leaves Third Master (Aaron Kwok) to take control of the clan’s silver-hoarding operations, though despite loyalty to his father, he wants no part of it. Rather than allowing himself to be modeled in his father’s image, Third Master rebels by taking off on a desert retreat where he fights some CGI wolves and mulls his forbidden love for his stepmother Madame Kang (Hao Lei), who shares feelings for him and who, in an underdeveloped subplot, is counseled by a Western missionary (an out-of-place Jennifer Tilly). It’s a faux-Shakespearean saga of treachery, tested loyalties, stifled desires, and tragic twists of fate, and one that director Christian Yao shoots with a ceremonial elegance that’s stagnant to the point of being somnambulistic.
From overwrought flashbacks of Third Master and Madame Kang’s initial meetings (and sexual encounter), to the present-day arguments and maneuverings of Lord Kang, Empire of Silver is so determined to stage its material with reverence that it embalms any flickers of passion or tension. Similarly, though focused on Third Master’s struggle to choose his own path and, by extension, define himself (a choice that’s between his father’s belief in the importance of maintaining wealth and bloodlines, and his own more altruistic and romantic convictions), the story posits this conflict in such a transparently schematic way that there’s no life to these issues, nor is there any suspense to their eventual resolution. China’s shift from a financial system predicated on physical silver to one based around paper money eventually has direct ramifications for Third Master and Lord Kang’s dueling plans to solidify the bank’s future, but regardless of its air of grand import, Yao’s script reduces everything to simplistic black-and-white terms. All the while, her tale fails—with one title-card exception—to clearly lay out the events’ decades-spanning time frame, yet another shortcoming that makes her film feel like it lasts forever.