AaronKwok and LeiHaoSet in late 19th century in China, Empire of Silver is a historical movie directed by Christina Yao. The story is about how the son of a powerful wealthy merchant must inherit the family business and the challenges he has to face. The following is the transcript of an interview with Yao via e-mail.

Q: EMPIRE OF SILVER focuses on a specific period in history. What inspired you to make a film on this difficult subject matter?

A: Ten years ago, I stumbled upon an article that I sparked my interest in Shanxi merchants, a group of people who brought so much by way of business ethics to the world that no one really knows about.

Set in late 19th century in China, Empire of Silver is a historical movie directed by Christina Yao. The story is about how the son of a powerful wealthy merchant must inherit the family business and the challenges he has to face. The following is the transcript of an interview with Yao via e-mail.


AaronKwok and LeiHaoQ: EMPIRE OF SILVER focuses on a specific period in history. What inspired you to make a film on this difficult subject matter?

A: Ten years ago, I stumbled upon an article that I sparked my interest in Shanxi merchants, a group of people who brought so much by way of business ethics to the world that no one really knows about.  These merchants were some of the earliest people to initiate a business model based upon incentives through bonuses and emphasize the cultivation of ethical business conduct. I found this era in history tremendously important and fascinating and thus begun my investigation. This core group of merchants whom acted as present day bankers had so much power and yet they chose not to abuse it.  There was something admirable about the group and the way they conducted themselves and I saw a story in that.  

At the time that I started doing my research, the Enron fiasco had just broken out and I found the human stories of those affected by the scandal to be highly compelling. It’s really no different than what is happening today with the Occupy Wall Street movement – there is widespread discontent caused by the few that wield financial power and abuse it.

In my view, narrative arts with important subject matter necessarily raise questions of morality.  As is often the case, money is a topic at center of heated debate which frequently highlights different philosophies and attitudes. It is through the characters’ attitudes toward money that their different philosophies get heard.  

There are two plots in the film:  the fate of a banking dynasty at stake during a tumultuous time in China, and the protagonist Third Master inner struggle in making choices in life.  These two plots are interwoven by virtue of the position of Third Master:  he is the prince of a banking empire whose fate is dependent on him. The intimate and the epic are thereby united into one.  At the same time, the characters’ moral choices become the voice of the film.  

Empire of SilverQ: To make EMPIRE OF SILVER, you spent a great deal of time and energy and conducted a great deal of historical research. How did you go about doing research?

A: In shooting EMPIRE OF SILVER, I committed to portraying the society and era at the time as accurately as possible.  

Since films are every bit about the visual and aesthetic feel, we first set out to give an authentic depiction of the lifestyle of the literati and intellectual class in pre-modern China.  In order to be authentic, all the set pieces and decor were real antique pieces, and we did not dare to use any piece that we could not verify through historical photographs as to be belonging to or before the period.  The film would not have its look if we didn’t have the generous support of the collectors and museums. For one scene we closed down a city museum for a few days because we emptied their entire exhibition.  For any shoot of the interior scenes we had 6 or 7 teams of guards of treasures on set guarding their pieces.   

Aside from the look and feel of the film, I also sought to build nuance into the story by providing the film with as much historical depth as possible. Telling a story about the Wall Street of China, I had to make the laws within the banking world clear to the audience: the behavior codes, especially sexual behavior codes, all characters had to abide by; the rules by which the wealth and the power of Piao-hao was divided, and by its implication the social structure within the piao-hao kingdoms.  To this end, I spent countless hours scouring through written materials, watching documentary films and visiting with expert scholars and historians.

Another aspect of that era that I tried to capture was the growing encroachment of western influence in China.  At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, China was going through a cultural civil war between its conservative factors and its Westernized factors. Boxers’ rebellion, Allied invasion and the Nationalist Revolution were all part of the process. In my research, I was surprised to learn how entrenched Christian churches were in China, particularly in the countryside.  I stumbled across a photo of a Christian missionary with 300 or so Chinese peasant women of Christian faith and realized that I needed to convey this reality in my film, that China at the time was strongly influenced by Western thoughts including Christianity, and the conservative forces in the country was at war with the encroachment of Western  cultural influences.  

Q: What was your journey in making this film?

A: From the onset of shooting EMPIRE, I was committed to making it a realistic portrayal of the time period and thus, authenticity was the goal and the challenge of our entire team, both during the production and the post-production phases.  

In order to convey the vastness of the world these bankers resided in, we decided not to go into studios and to shoot on real locations. During the shoot of 4 ½ months we transferred 9 times (the normal maximum in China is 3 times due to the danger of traveling with around 200 trucks on often treacherous roads), traveled through 4 provinces (Gansu, Qinghai, Shanxi and Hebei) and shot in 13 cities and counties, on 46 sets. The odometer on my trailer was 5 times the distance between East Coast and West Coast of the US.  We were able to do this because our line producer, Li Congxi, was a perfectionist and had training to do war movies for the August 1st Army Studio.  He was a retired colonel himself and had two admiral generals as his assistants.  During the shoot, they used military lingos during discussions and they moved us about like generals moving their troops.

The set:  all the buildings were real buildings that survived disasters and time, and they all are considered museums now.  Lots of CGI work was done to erase modernity from the existing surroundings and to replace it with period drawings.  But the buildings themselves carried grandeur and patina that could not be duplicated by built-set.

For the interior, all the props and decor, except hand props, were antique pieces. We did not dare to use any piece that we could not be verified by historical photos as belonging to the period. We tried to re-create the lifestyle of the literati class in the traditional China: these were educated men well versed in the classical canon and lived lifestyles that could afford leisurely playthings:  hence ink stone carving, painting, music or even Western music, calligraphy, etc. all came into the movie as characterizations of the characters. Local museums and collectors lent us their collections for the shoot. The film would not have its look if we didn’t have their generous support.

For one scene we closed down a city museum for a few days because we emptied its entire exhibition.  For any interior shoot we had at least 6 or 7 teams of guards on the set guarding their pieces.  I believe the interior set had the lived-in feel because the furniture and art pieces carried with them the sense of age and history. Material, techniques and colors of these pieces all have become extinct by now.  I think the museums and collectors lent us their pieces because they wanted to allow the pieces to live one more time in a life-environment. We were fortunate that with this movie, we made a record of how the Chinese high culture was lived in pre-modern time.  I looked at the colors of the porcelain pieces, the wood grain of the chairs, they exemplified qualities and technologies that we no longer possess in modern time.  I got quite sentimental at times.   

For the post production, we traveled to 9 countries and areas to finish the work, mainly because different talents we could find were from different countries:  for CGI, for instance, we had the work from companies from Hong Kong, U.S., England and Thailand, each company had its own specialty.

Q: EMPIRE OF SILVER has opened to a positive regard from movie-goers all-around.  What are you overall impressions of the local audience and of the Chinese community?

A: EMPIRE OF SILVER is now in its second week of theatrical release in Seattle thanks to the exceedingly warm and kind reception given to me and to my film.  

The Chinese community of Seattle, in particular, has demonstated tremendous kinship by being extremely generous with their time and energy. I’m so grateful to friends and organizations that liked the message in my film enough to help spread the word about the film by making calls, hosting events, and sending out email blasts and posting flyers and posters.  Also, witnessing the unity and cooperation among the different groups in the community was very moving to me, I don’t always see this in the cities I visit.   

Thanks to the community’s efforts, we packed the theater on opening weekend, and came in as the second highest grossing film at AMC Pacific Place 11, not bad considering competing films at the same theater each had at least 20 millions for publicity and marketing.

Releasing a Chinese-language film in the US is an extremely difficult task, the fact that EMPIRE is the second Taiwanese-made movie ever made to the US screen testifies how difficult it is (Edward Yang’s YI-YI was the first one). I am extremely thankful for the support of all the movie-goers and would like to thank the Chinese community especially on behalf of my entire team for supporting the film.

Q: What are your future plans in filmmaking?

A: I am developing some ideas now but have not committed to any of them.  I want to  work on a modern piece, hopefully a comedy.  However, worthy subject matters are hard to find.  Working on EMPIRE taught me one thing:  subject matter is what makes or breaks a movie.  When you have a worthy subject, best artists would want to join and devote their lives to the project. It would not be difficult to form a good team, and thereby one is guaranteed with good results.  For any narrative subject matter is king, it is even more so for filmmaking.

Empire of Silver will continue its run at the AMC Pacific Place 11 from now until Dec. 15.
Showtimes: 11:00a.m., 1:30p.m., 4:00p.m., 6:30p.m., 9:00p.m.

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