Empire strikes: The Bay Area's Christine Yao screens a Chinese epic in the San Francisco International's Cinema by the Bay section.

Christina Yao's solid Empire of Silver

Michael Fox April 12, 2010

First-time filmmaker Christina Yao is soft-spoken and exceedingly polite, but it’s apparent that very little intimidates her. Segueing from a prestigious career as a theater director and playwright in the U.S. and Taiwan to the movies, she chose a logistically complicated period piece for her debut. Empire of Silver centers on a family banking clan of enormous prestige and power in Shanxi province that hits a stretch of bad luck passing the reins to the next generation in the late 19th century. The negligent, hard partying third son, Third Master, is forced to grow up and grow into his new responsibilities, overcoming romantic disappointment, heinous double crosses and ruinous bank runs. Engrossingly plotted and beautifully shot, Empire of Silver premiered at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival and makes its local debut in the San Francisco International Film Festival’s Cinema By the Bay section April 25 and May 1. We met up with Yao, who was born in Taiwan, moved to the Bay Area in 1975, lives in Palo Alto and is a principal in a Hong Kong-based production company.

SF360: You come from a theater background originally. How would you describe your philosophy of filmmaking?

Christina Yao: There are a few routes to becoming a film director. One is starting with acting, which is my route, and there are directors who came from a cinematography background, and directors from a scriptwriting background. But no matter what, I think for any production to be successful, as someone said before and I think it’s really useful, it’s like a box. You want to have four strong walls to hold a box together. The four walls are the funding, and the script, and the cast and the team–the crew. The director is part of the crew, but the director–and also the producer, of course–need to try to hold the four walls together tight. If you are able to do that, you tend to have at least a solid project, if not a good one.

SF360: Empire of Silver is an extraordinarily ambitious film for a first feature. How did you reassure and inspire your cast at the outset?

Yao: I did start as an acting student, and what that helped me with was that I knew what to say to actors and what not to say to actors. Especially for film acting, I think actors are really fragile, because quite often the camera is a few inches from their face. The very important thing is that they have to be relaxed, and they have to have confidence in themselves. The first day, the first shot, they come to the monitor and they look at it and they know the kind of work they produce. And from that point on they have confidence in you, and that makes every step of the work more smoothly.

SF360: I understand you originally shifted from theater to movies by making short films.

Yao: Very short films. And also I did write some scripts. One of the films almost got produced. We got the money and then the actress decided, after all the years that she’d been with me, not to do it. (Laughs.) So that film fell through. I think Joan Chen said, and it’s a very interesting metaphor, ‘Producing a film is like a hen trying to herd together all the chicks. You lead a group going after one, and then you’ve got that one and someone else drops out, and you have to herd the whole group and look for that one.’ (Laughs.) In my case, I wrote a few scripts and then I also tried to get money. Empire of Silver was really different because the investor wanted to do it. He got the book and the money together and said to me, ‘If you’re serious about it, run with it.’ Half of the hurdle is looking for money; I didn’t have to do that part. So what’s left for me to do is to do as good a job as I could.

SF360: The film centers on a family of long-ago bankers, with an irresponsible son coming to the fore. Do you think audiences these days can root for a banker who matures into a man of character?

Yao: These bankers, at the time, did have a moral core to their business. They labeled themselves as ‘Confucian merchants,’ meaning that they did impose a strict moral code to their behavior. One example that might be useful to illustrate what they had to adhere by: There was an Englishman in the 1960s who got a large sum of money deposited into his account in Hong Kong. He wasn’t sure what that was about so he looked into it and found out that his grandfather was in business with a merchant from this same Shanxi school, and the business failed. That merchant, on his deathbed, said to his family that if ever the family is able to resurrect its glory, they have to return the money. So two generations later, they return the money. Nowadays, I would say that’s unheard of. What’s important is that it’s not just that the grandfather was loyal to his code, but two generations after him also were loyal to the code. That illustrates how these merchants saw themselves. I think that is something that we don’t have anymore.

SF360: How did you conceive your female characters–in particular, the young stepmother that the main character is involved with–so that their roles and status would be relevant to contemporary audiences?

Yao: I think one big issue is autonomy. This is a woman that, at that historical moment, saw herself as completely autonomous–not just from her husband but also from this young man that she deeply loves and made great sacrifices for. When I was writing this role, I was very aware that in the past 20 to 30 years of Chinese cinema women tend to be–whether they were strong roles or not–victims of society. And I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted this woman to be fully in control of her own fortunes and fully in control of her own life, and I also wanted her to have a core of hope, like a lamp on her shoulders that guides her in her own destiny.

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