Christina Yao builds a solid Empire of Silver

SF360 Interview with Christina Yao:
Daily News & Features from America's Film & Media Frontier. Published by the San Francisco Film Society
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 grov 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, or 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 Tampon her shoulders that guides her in her own destiny.

the epic tale of china's wall street

From San Diego Asian Film Foundation
by Phillip Lorenzo October 6, 2010

PL: What gave you the inspiration to tell the story of "The Wall Street of China"?

CY: There are several reasons that made me passionate about the story of Shanxi bankers: my own family ties to the region, my fascination with the culture of these merchants, and my desire to examine human behavior in the face of great challenges.

Ten years ago while reading the newspaper I came across an article about Shanxi merchants who, as a group, dominated the commerce world of China for 500 years during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 AD to 1910 AD). Since my family came from Shanxi, it was of particular interest to me to learn that the province, which had for the last 50 years come to be known for debilitating poverty and mining catastrophes, had at one point been the financial and commercial center of China for a lengthy period of time.

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The vicissitude and randomnessof the region's fortune intrigued me and I felt that in this lesser known region of the world lay a great wealth of history that was worthy of exploring. Very few people know the significant contribution Shanxi merchants made to modern day business practices. The way they handled the social-political issues of their time reflected their progressive and forward-thinking mentality. For one, they invented, in the 15th century the CEO system of management and the system of technical stock. Also, by making Confucian moral principles their business codes, they were highly ethical in their practices and dealings. Their piaohao or banking industry, which flourished during the 19th century, was an example of their resourcefulness and entrepreneurship. They invented a sophisticated bank check system, which remains impenetrable even for scholars today, to exploiting the monetary system of the Qingdynasty which was based on hard-to-transport silver ingots. Thereby they became the sole financial channel that facilitated the country's commerce and finance markets. They controlled the financial well-being of the entire country. In effect, they functioned like the Wall Street functions in the West.

Beyond my personal ties to the region and my curiosity about the Shanxi merchants, I was to tell a story that somehow embodies a universal experience relatable to all people. Seven years ago, Enron scandal broke out on TV news. I watched the Enron employees being betrayed by their employers. During the same time, in Shanxi, the home of our bankers, coal miners in sub-standard mines died in mass on a monthly basis while the mine owners bought up fleets of luxury cars. All over the world, we saw businessmen turned into personifications of greed and excess. I thought about the behavior ethics of the Shanxi bankers and I thought it was high time to tell the story of these bankers as a way to discuss the relationships between man versus money, man versus his fellow men and man versus himself.

PL: How much time and how difficult was it to balance the scope of telling the story of a piaohao (banking empire) with the intimacy and sensitivity of personal relationships and family struggle?

This issue concerned us greatly during the writing process. We were aware that, though we want to talk about piaohao's history, the story has to be a personal story that the audience could identify with in order to reach the audience emotionally. As a student of dramatic literature, I chose a few classics about royal families or powerful families like HAMLET, KING LEAR, and THE GODFATHER, as my guides to build a narrative through-line.

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All of these family stories center upon the one issue which is often the most crucial turning point for any organization, succession of power. As such, I chose succession as the central plot of our story. A self-conflicted mind or a conflict of minds between opponents me, one of the most difficult dilemmas that plague all human existence is the conflict between one's obligation to his family or society, and his personal, private desires. Furthermore, in up, one's ideological leaning has direct bearing upon his own sense of obligation to his society. today, two schools of thought that originated 2000 years ago, Confucianism and the Legalism, still battle for ideological dominance in the business and the political arenas in China.

By exposing the characters' belief systems, I tried to invite the audience to become intimate with the characters' thinking process, and thereby identify with the characters' passion, struggle and misery. The decisions, ultimately, become the future of their empire: the empire's future is only the outcome of the characters' thinking process. By intertwining all the dramatic elements, grand or intimate, I tried to build an organic whole that appeals to both the minds and the hearts of the audience.

PL: This is such a massive epic, with lots of effects, extras, and locations, how much work truly went into this film and how has it affected your filmmaking future?

CY: Since this is a realistic movie, authenticity became the goal 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 shot on real locations and never in studios. We transferred 9 times during the shoot (the norm 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 Hibei) and shot in 13 cities and counties, on 46 locations. I ne odometer on my trailer was 5 times the distance between the east coast to the west coast of the US. We were able to do this because our line producer, Li Congxi, was a perfectionist with incredible leadership, and he came from the military. Owing to him, our production was run like a smooth military operation.

All of the set pieces and decor were real antique pieces. Art collectors and museums were very generous and supportive. For one scene we closed down a city museum for a few days because we emptied their entire exhibition.

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The post production was completed in 9 countries and areas because talents resided in different countries. The CGI work, for instance, was done by companies from HK, US, England, Thailand and China, each company had its own specialty. For instance, in order to restore the bridge in Tianjin to its original grandeur and to erase all traces of modernity around it, we used CGI to change the sculptures, the lights and the banisters on the bridge, the building behind the bridge, the river bank and the water under the bridge, and for some shots, the sky above the bridge. Then we drew in moving people and vehicles in the distance. The CGI work itself took close to two years to finish. Al together it took us 5 years to finish the film.

I think the adage that "you're only as good as your team" was especially true in the case of EMPIRE. I was blessed with the opportunity to work with many world-class masters who believed in because of its subject matter. Worthy subject matters are hard to find. I'm still looking for the next story worthy of telling.

PL: What was it like working with such great talent as Aaron Kwok, Tielin Zhang, Hao Lei, and Jennifer Tilly? press

All the stars were pros in terms of both talent and attitude. They were very giving and very easy to work with. Hitchcock said 95% of film-making is casting. We were lucky to be able to find the ideal cast, and what was left for me to do was to provide a relaxing environment for the stars in order them to give their best work.

For the first take on the first day of shoot, if an actor looks at the monitor and likes the work he produced, he will trust the director and from that point on the work would be easy for both. We had a week's rehearsal before the shooting started, and we also visited the remnant compounds of the Shanxi merchants to soak up the culture, so to speak. Quite often a set up took only 3 or 4 takes and would be satisfied by what had been done. As a result, even though it was a shoot that transferred 9 times, we were on schedule and did not even go over one day, which is unusual in China.

China's Wall Street bbrought back to life with "Empire Of Silver".

In the China of 1899, war had depleted the Qing Dynasty and the rampant use of Opium had robbed the people of its health and pride. Among all of this turmoil was the existence of the "Wall Street of China"; the northern province of Shanxi was home to a guild of bankers. These bankers controlled all of the funds in China and other nations such as Mongolia, Japan, and Russia. Despite this large amount of control over finances, there was little control over other matters.
In this lush and beautiful epic film, Boxer Rebels and family disputes lead to the erosion of the Kang banking empire, where a disinterested and hedonistic son must lead the family bank into the future. Love triangles, conflicts over heredity of the banking empire, and the personal journey of a man in need of an identity fill EMPIRE OF SILVER with sexy, unique, and captivating images that should not be missed.
-Phil Lorenzo Screening Sponsors:
Dr. Robert and Mao Shillman
Lew Family Foundation
Co-presented by:
San Diego House of China
San Diego Chinese Historical Musuem
Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association
Confucius Institute at SDSU

Grand visionary Christina Yao makes her directorial debut with the epic"Empire Of Silver".

Presented in association with Asian Art Museum
Jesse Dubus

With this lush epic Palo Alto-based filmmaker Christina Yao tells a story both timely and timeless: a tale of love, succession and compromised ideals that chronicles the lives of a powerful family of Shanxi bankers during the waning years of the Qing Dynasty. Downright Shakespearean in theme, the film details a little-known piece of Chinese history while offering parallels to the current financial crisis with its shadowy world of unscrupulous market fixing and backroom deals. In the northeastern Chinese province of 19th-century Shanxi, a group of bankers amassed extensive wealth and power that allowed them considerable independence from the state. The fictional Kang family is one such clan, whose fortunes take a sudden turn for the worse when several of the family's heirs meet tragic fates and civil unrest threatens the nation's stability. Third Master (played by Hong Kong heartthrob Aaron Kwok), a hedonist and the Kang patriarch's least favorite son, is now called upon to carry on their lineage. Torn between familial obligation and his own desire for love and happiness, he sets out to reform his father's unethical business practices while shepherding the family through the country's growing unrest. Full of swooping crane shots, monumental sets and massive landscapes, Yao's debut recalls the opulent historical sagas of Chinese Fifth Generation filmmakers like Zhang Yimou a it combines a passionate tale of unrequited love and a fascinating glimpse of a rarely related episode in Chinese history.