Interview: EMPIRE OF SILVER writer and director Christina Yao

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
June 9th, 2011

For her first feature, filmmaker Christina Yao went big, epic, and ambitious - and that just covers the many roles she played in bringing EMPIRE OF SILVER to the screen. Serving as writer, director, art director, and producer on the film, Yao crafted a film that is both epic and intimate, a tale about both a family and an industry, all mixed in with gorgeous imagery, stunning attention to detail, and a wrenching love story. EMPIRE OF SILVER blends all of these elements into one original and outstanding epic about the family at the center of a Chinese banking empire in the last part of the nineteenth century. It would be an undertaking for any filmmaker, but for a first-timer, it's just stunning.

After the break, check out my email interview with Yao in which we talk about mixing the big and little plots of her film to beautiful effect, the article that inspired it, and the many technical elements of the production.

From its first moments, EMPIRE OF SILVER establishes itself as a film that works on both an epic and an intimate scale – there’s both sweeping panoramas and a voiceover with our main character asking himself some deep questions – how did you go about balancing those elements in the film?

The movie’ s opening lines indicate that its theme has to do with man’s relationship with the world and with himself. Since it is a movie about powerful men in the banking industry, it also deals with man’s relationship with money. In fact, it is through the characters’ different attitudes toward money that their philosophies about themselves and about their world are expressed. 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 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. I wanted Third Master to be someone who is self-aware and self-reflective: he is always questioning himself about what is right and wrong. In fact, he is a prisoner of his own conscience. His inner struggles, be it romantic or moral, give us intimate knowledge of his being. At the same time, these struggles often result in changing the course of his empire. While I was writing the script, I tried to delve into the darkest corners of his psyche as well as to situate the drama in the most momentous historical period in order to balance as well as to dramatize the contrast between the intimate and the epic. Through this design Third Master has to conquer his own selfish ego in order to become both a worthwhile lover and a moral hero responding to his duty to his time. The intimate and the epic are thereby united into one.

The “piaohao” that the film’s family runs is an amazing business that few people may know about – what interested you about the piahao and its systems, and how did you research it to bring it to the screen?

Ten years ago I ran across an article about the Shanxi merchants’ 500 years (1400 AD till 1900 AD) of domination of the commerce world in China. My family came from Shanxi and was a trader family, so I started to investigate this piece of buried history. I read extensively about the systems the merchants invented that enabled “piaohao” to flourish:  i.e., their CEO or professional management system that clearly separate investors from managers, and their technical stock system that grant profit sharing with employees. I realized that these merchants were really advanced for their time.  In addition, their lifestyle and behavior were governed by Confucian moral codes which encouraged them, when faced with crises, to make choices that were altruistic. Being a student of culture, I immediately found the merchants’ story fascinating. I knew a good literary work starts with a good subject matter, I felt I found a gold mine for me to dig into for a movie.

The forbidden love between Third Master and Madame Kang is a gorgeous and ill-fated love, and much of it relies on the chemistry between Aaron Kwok and Hao Lei. How did you end up casting these two for their roles? 

In general, I like to work with actors who are eager to communicate. I believe it is the sign of a passionate soul. Also I believe a talented actor cannot hide his feelings even if he wanted to, his face is a tell-sign of what is going on inside him. Beyond these two signs of talent, I look for actors that fit the roles in the movie. I studied the looks of successful Shanxi merchants before casting. Aaron had the “killer” look which is so common among these determined merchants. He is also a self-driven, extremely disciplined actor. Hao Lei in life is known to be strong-minded, passionate and stubborn at times, which perfectly matches the personality of Madame Kang. The two actors bonded right away when they first met. I believe each saw in the other his/her self. During the shoot they were protective of each other to the extent that Jennifer Tilly thought they were real lovers in life.

The bankers in the film conduct their business under a very strict moral code, but in their personal lives, they are not so rigid when it comes to necessarily respecting each other – what was your process in writing such complex characters that, on the surface, may seem to be perpetually at odds with their own beliefs?

I believe human behavior is often self-contradictory. And to capture this is to capture what makes us human. The most obvious example of this in the movie is Third Master’s cruelty to Madame Kang. While he obviously is tortured by his desire for her, he is not only rude but also purposely hurtful to her (the desert parting scene). When I was writing the character of Third Master, I made sure he starts out with un-appealing qualities so that he can grow in the course of the movie. I defined him at the beginning of the movie as “a man who would not tolerate human frailty just like his eyes would not tolerate a grain of sand, even if this grain of sand is he himself”. In other words, this is a judgmental and unforgiving man, though on the surface he seems compassionate and good-intentioned. I think the contradiction makes him interesting, human, un-predictable and real.   

 The other example is Manager Qiu, the traitor. On the surface Manager Qiu is docile and obedient. But in my mind this is a man who is smart enough to know how unfairly Old Master treated him and is manly enough to be resentful about it. His docility and extreme acquiescence are signs of danger because he is a man hiding behind a mask, albeit out of fear and hurtful feelings. His betrayal at the end of the movie, therefore, is a vengeful act waiting to happen. Yet even before this happens, the tension carried in his obedience makes Third Master uncomfortable (the camel train scene). I believe I made Manager Qiu interesting by making him hard to read and seem too easy-going to be real. Again in Manager Qiu we see that contradictory traits make a character interesting and create suspense. But it is important for a writer to make the contradiction not arbitrary and random, that it seems logical and explainable in terms of cause/effect within the context of the story.

There’s an incredible amount of detail in the film, from sets to music to costumes, can you talk a little about your process of actually putting all of these elements together? 

To be able to shoot in real location gave authenticity to the movie. Most of the buildings we shot in were real buildings that survived disasters and time. They are all 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.

All the props and decor, except hand props, were antique pieces. Local museums and collectors lent us their collections for the shoot. I believe the interior set had the lived-in feel because the furniture and art carried with them the sense of age and history. Material, technique and color of these pieces all have become extinct by now.  I think the collectors wanted to allow the pieces to live one more time in a life-environment. We are fortunate to have made a record of this with this movie. 

Three composers worked on the film’s music. I listened to their previous works, assigned the composers to different segments of the film by matching the emotional element of the scenes with the styles of the composers. 

Men’s costumes were made for the film but the decorative accessories such as buttons were antiques. The women’s costumes, especially those of Madame Kang’s, were put together with new materials and antique pieces, while hair jewelry were also antique pieces. In order to achieve authenticity, we made sure we only use pieces that correspond with our research material, i.e., period photographs. Unless we had proof that a piece was true to period, we dared not to use it. 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 a lifestyle that could afford leisurely playthings:  hence ink stone carving, painting, music or even Western music, calligraphy, etc. all came into the movie as part of characterization of the characters. 

For a first film, EMPIRE OF SILVER is big, sweeping, and ambitious – are you interested in keeping up that sort of work in your next film, or are you looking for something different?

I am developing some ideas right now but have not committed to any of them. I will work on a modern piece, maybe comedy. But at this point I do not have any definite plans.

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