Seen examines the shows that I see.
I won some free tickets to see Empire of Silver so I grabbed a friend and we wandered into the barren theater to see the show during its limited run. From the moment it opens up, it's easy to tell that there's going to be some wonderful visuals and pageantry. What I didn't expect with the enormous, sprawling story that's filled with so many holes it was akin to reading a 10 page abridged version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Set during the period of the Boxer Rebellion in nineteenth century China, Empire Silver concerns the fate of the Kang family, who runs a powerful bank. We follow the family through the Third Master (third son) (Aaron Kwok) of Lord Kang (Tielin Zhang) as Kang prepares his sons for taking over the family business, which ancestral legend recounts started from a loan that was received as an act of charity. A lot of melodrama is involved as the Third Master has issues with his stepmother/former lover (Hao Lei) and his three brothers suffer unexpected troubles, leaving the family empire on his shoulders, as the Qing dynasty undergoes a state of unrest due to the conflict between the Boxers and foreign influences.
I don't doubt that Empire of Silver had something resembling a strong sweeping epic narrative at some point in its development. Unfortunately, that's not what's in the film. The story is heavily fragmented and much of the development in the story just happens, without showing us the critical dramatic details that change characters and plotlines. For example, the entire love story/tension between the Third Master and Madame Kang could easily have been the focus of a whole film, however, the pieces presented (and, in the order presented) don't provide enough content for a complete story, nor do they actually build enough of a believable relationship between the two to justify the impact of their failed relationship on the Third Master.
Furthermore, although the Boxer Rebellion is a backdrop for this story, the film teases greater implications and largely fails to deliver on them. Then there's also the minuscule attention given to two theoretically major characters, Manager Qiu (Ding Zhi Chang) and Manager Dai (Lei Zhen Yu) and the film leaves us with the Third Master feeling something for these characters, yet there's hardly anything in the actual film to portray where those ties came from, rather we are told via dialogue that Dai "is righteous" and Qiu "is simple". This actually saps much of the drama from moments involving these characters (and all the others, for the matter), resulting in a film that actually reads drier than a history textbook. Part of the problem does lie in that the film's scope is probably much too large to fit into a single film and should have been split up into multiple films (or just had a portion of the story focused on). As it stands, it was a chore to watch.
The one thing the film did have going for it was some gorgeous photography and art and costume design. If the story was poorly wrought, the visuals were largely strong, although the production goes overboard on the melodrama at times, like a certain thunderstorm towards the end that's about as subtle as a neutron bomb. Also, the computer generated wolves in the film were laughably ridiculous (not to mention painfully draining on the realism of the film). I actually thought Kwok did a good job with the paper thin character he was given, likewise with Zhang's Kang. The poorest performance of the bunch probably belongs to the single scene priest, Paster Landdeck (Jonathan Kos-Read), whose performance was so wooden, he could've sailed back to America by his acting--then again, there was absolutely no point to his character even being in the film, as well as Jennifer Tilly's Mrs. Landdeck, except as a vehicle for exposition.
About halfway into the film, I started wondering when something was going happen that actually took the story somewhere. Two thirds though, I was wondering when it was going to end. While spectacle is nice, a story cannot be merely emoted, like Empire of Silver does with its narrative. The film fails to provide the actual points in the story that matter in developing characters and just tells us that it happens so it can get back to visually attractive, but meaningless moments that are full of unearned emotion. And that's when I had to stifle my laughter as not to disturb the five other patrons in the theater. Empire of Silver is a pretty picture to look at, but while the epic family story actually had potential, it turns out not to be made of actual dramatic substance and, as a result, is tough one to watch. It would've done better had just one element been focused on or the whole thing broken up. Pass. 4/10.