Another week, another historical movie. Regular readers of WiC will have noted the striking number of films (as well as television series) that are set in China’s distant past. Empire of Silver – due for release today – is the latest, and takes place in the two decades preceding the Qing Dynasty’s fall.
But why the obsession with historical epics, you may ask? Perhaps the reason is this: in a fast-changing society, history is a useful way to make sense of the present.
But there could be an additional dimension: as a rising power, China is increasingly trying to promote its credentials as a 5,000 year old civilisation – and in turn, export its culture. Big budget movies are a useful vehicle.
Empire of Silver was showcased at both the Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals – as well as the Shanghai International Film Festival.
The film-makers have been keen to promote the movie’s authenticity. It features 2,000 costumes, with the Bund magazine reporting that even “the clothing for the prostitutes is antique”. An abacus was borrowed from the Shanxi Museum, and one scene was shot on a 700 year-old bridge.
But in order to woo Western audiences, Empire of Silver has an added sop: some dialogue is in English. Mainland actress, Hao Lei underwent nine months of English language training before shooting started.
The 31 year-old plays a sophisticated woman educated abroad. To add credibility to the role, she and fellow star, Aaron Kwok – the Hong Kong-born actor – occasionally lapse from Chinese into English both as a show of their cosmopolitan upbringings, and to stop servants picking up on their flirtation.
When the film was premiered in Shanghai, its wider significance was heralded. “China has used the past 30 years to build a strong economic profile,” said Wang Tianyun of the Shanghai Film Group. “For the next 30 years we have to build our soft power.”
But this expression of soft power is not without paradox. That’s because the film was financed by the Taiwanese billionaire tycoon, Terry Gou. Students of modern Chinese history will know that until very recently Taiwan was more likely to denigrate China than help project its soft power.
Gou, of course, is no ordinary businessman. Reputed to be Taiwan’s richest man, he was one of the first to see the potential of China’s economic miracle. His electronics firm, Hon Hai opened its first factory in China in 1988 and now employs 450,000 and is China’s largest single exporter, according to the Wall Street Journal.
But Gou’s parents were from Shanxi province – decamping to Taiwan in 1949 after Mao’s revolution.
So Gou decided he wanted to make a film about Shanxi’s old merchant class and approached Taiwanese director Yao Shuhua. “Mr Gou wanted to make a film about business,” says Yao, a Stanford drama graduate who has directed over 30 plays. “When he asked if I had any interest, I agreed as I am also from Shanxi.”
The film has been five years in the making, and cost around Rmb80 million ($11.7 million). The subject matter is a powerful, late 19th century family bank in Shanxi, which controls much of the Qing Dynasty’s finances, and helps Shanxi merchants fund foreign trade.
The drama centres on the bank’s decline as it attempts to weather the Boxer Rebellion, and later the fall of the Qing in 1911.
Adding spice: a love triangle between the protagonists – the bank’s owner and his son and the film’s leading lady.
One reason the film took so long to complete was Yao’s desire to shoot mostly on location, rather than in studios. In fact, she scouted heritage locations in four provinces, with more than 40 scenes laboriously filmed in 13 different cities, reports Sanlian Life Weekly.
In order to retain the nineteenth century flavour, computer-generated imagery was used to remove or replace any modern buildings that crept into Yao’s lens.
Above all else, Yao hopes the film will send out a positive message about the business ethics of Shanxi’s bygone merchants.
“We are a nation centred on moral virtue,” she says in reference to China’s Confucian legacy. “That is the reason why our nation can exist so long, and our civilisation has not been damaged. I hope to transmit this point to the world.”
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