Longing to be Lean, by David Bax
I don’t think it’s because of the language or cultural barrier that I often found myself at a loss to understand what the hell was going on in Christina Yao’s historical epic Empire of Silver. Okay, maybe a little. Films in which all the characters have the same hair style and the same uniform (like American war movies) do tend to have that problem. But mostly it was the overwhelming number of plots, characters, locations and mini-arcs within the story – and Yao’s inability to juggle them – that led to my confusion.
Empire of Silver begins by immediately putting the audience in mind of Lawrence of Arabia. A man, whom the film will finally reveal to be our protagonist after a knotty and belabored first act, is standing alone on the edge of a desert, pondering the nature of existence. We don’t know this is what he’s pondering because it’s on his face or even in voiceover. He’s literally talking about it out loud to himself. After that rises the first swell of a mawkish score that persists throughout the film’s running time (can it really have only been 112 minutes?), accompanied by a series of grand and sweeping but meaningless shots of camels and land and lots of people.
I mention Lawrence of Arabia above not only because of the desert but because Yao’s movie is laden with the trademarks of someone who learned all the wrong lessons from David Lean. His legacy of the ponderous and arty epic informs much of this film but Yao is only capable of interpreting that legacy through the use of grand production design, costuming and cinematography in support of nothing more interesting or insightful than an almost complete stasis on the part of her main characters. When they do emote, they do so chiefly through exaggerated dialogue and scenery-chewing to match the lavish production. Yao’s camera is moves with more grace than her characters do and it manages to find quite a lot of pleasing angles and frames. But to be pleasing seems to be the end of the camera’s ambition. For all her apparent desire to describe the inner life of the people in her story, she utilizes none of cinema’s techniques to get anywhere beyond the surface.
The older, traditional type of film epic is cannibalized here as well. The historical melodrama has had its successes (Gone with the Wind) and failures (Duel in the Sun) but even those have more often than not been able to maintain forward momentum. Empire of Silver, on the other hand, is like an entire season of an HBO historical drama series packed into one film. There are long sequences that are tangential to the story’s thrust. That some of these eventually reveal themselves to have been important to the tale does not excuse the fact that they are bewildering while taking place. A section dealing with a man whose wife has been kidnapped by another man’s prostitute lover is particularly egregious and mostly extraneous.
Also extraneous is the use of computer generated effects. I’m normally hesitant to take a film to task for bad CG when that’s likely the best it could afford but the cartoonish wolves that set upon our hero in the desert one night are so undeniably fake as to ruin the intended impact of the scene, which should have been an important and thrilling step toward his self-realization. Two characters swinging their swords at unseen, off-screen canines would actually have been more effective than this.
The most frustrating thing about Empire of Silver is that is does contain a seed of a good story. Yao, however, doesn’t appear to realize its potential. The story of a father who forcibly marries the woman his son loves in order to make that son marry someone else is a highly effective one. The pain and the yearning that live for years in the hearts of both the son and his now stepmother are touching- even heartbreaking- elements and they deserve far more screen time. The flashback to two teenagers losing their virginity to each other – contained in one long, close shot – is first erotic, then uncomfortable and then, finally, something no other moment in the film manages to be: revelatory. If only Yao understood that this was the film she should have been making the whole time.