IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Christina Yao talks 'Empire of Silver'

Tuesday, 07 June 2011 15:46 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Christina Yao talks 'Empire of Silver'

First time filmmaker Christina Yao may be making her directorial debut with the film Empire of Silver, but she is certainly not new to directing, having overseen the production of almost thirty theater plays both in Taiwan and the United States. In Empire of Silver a young man (Aaron Kwok) must assume the role of heir to a banking empire he cares little about. Following the kidnapping of his brother's wife, "Third Master" reluctantly submits to pressure from his father. The relationship is further complicated by Third Master's undying love for his ... stepmother, his first and only love stolen from him by his own father. Empire of Silver opened in New York, and Los Angeles, as well as a few other North American cities, on June 3rd. I recently had a chance to sit down with director Christina Yao to discuss Empire of Silver, the writing process, her research, casting American actress Jennifer Tilly, and what modern audiences can learn from the film.

Here is what she had to say:

To begin with, I know that you have a strong theater background but as a first-time film director did you feel like you hit the ground running or was there a bit of a learning curve that you had to overcome on the first day?

Christina Yao: On the set actually no, but the whole preparation was difficult. The script itself had to be ready and it took me a long time. I wrote twenty-some drafts to get it ready. So, that process was gruesome, because it’s invention. You try to invent something and you don’t really know when you will get there, or whether you will get there at all. The preparation was methodical, just step-by-step. You try to find the best people you can, and going from the subject matter almost all of my top choices jumped on board right away because they liked the story. On the set it’s easy actually because the preparation was done. I spent about four months just analyzing the script. Everyday I did one page. It was an assignment for myself. Everyday I did one page, and I storyboarded and found out the mood of the scene. I tried to see if the scene worked by itself, whether it’s worthwhile to keep it, or if it should be taken out. And then, if the scene is not interesting what do I have to invent to make it interesting so that the audience doesn’t pay attention to the boringness of the scene. So, all of that was done during the preparation.

With the script, since you were adapting it from a book, was there a lot of extra research that you had to do or did you take all your information directly from the novel?

Yao: I did adapt from a book, but the book itself was more like a melodrama and I changed the melodrama too. The writer really was quite nice and she said she knew nothing about the movie. She said, “Do whatever you have to do.” But when I visited some scholars to ask for advice on the subject matter they said, “If you don’t do the system of these merchants, you don’t talk about their ethics, then don’t do the film. Don’t touch it. You’ll ruin it.” So I thought, “Okay, fine. Then that will be the direction I should go after. To talk about the system, talk about their ethics.” So the research was done mainly to learn about those. Then the research was really quite interesting because you have to put it in the historical context and then you realize that this was the system’s only group of people that was monogamous in the entirety of pre-modern Chinese history. For 4,000 or 5,000 years of civilization, this was the only group that had a rule that you do not have a second wife, you do not go to brothels and you don’t divorce, you cannot divorce. So that really made me even more interested in the subject matter because that must come from somewhere. It’s not just a random rule. It’s also a very difficult rule to live with. For instance, through the research I realized that one man, who was second in command of a big family, was kicked out of his family because he had a second wife. The reason he married a second wife is because his first wife was paralyzed. So, even that kind of special circumstance wasn’t tolerated. So, I thought, then of course there is a reason for it and I think that rule has to do with keeping women, or the first wives in the family, in their positions. So what happened was all these managers, all these merchants traveled a lot. So, if they leave their home and they are allowed to have any kind of secondary relationships, then the positions of the first wives would, of course suffer. Then however, the women, these wives, are really managers of the house. Who manages the money? It’s the wife who does it. So, by guaranteeing these women their positions, it guarantees a good manager for the house. Therefore, the good cycle starts. So when those scholars said to me, “You don’t touch the subject matter unless you know, unless you talk about their systems.” What they said was, “The fact that they had a system starting in the 15th century, they had a professional managers system to an extent that the investors could step into the compounds of the companies always guaranteed that the systems would run well.’”

I think that most audiences are going to find it very interesting that you cast American actress Jennifer Tilly in this film. It’s a very unexpected performance from her. What was it about meeting with her, or seeing her past work that proved to you that she was capable of pulling off this role?

Yao: I like her, I liked her work and I saw many of her previous films. But then, I didn’t know about her Chinese ancestry. Did you know that? She’s half Chinese. I just saw her interview on CBS. She was there to promote our movie and she openly talked about it. Her father’s name is Harry Chan, a doctor, a medical doctor. She said when her parents divorced that her mother kept all the children and she took her maiden name. Of course, I’ve known her work for years, maybe for decades. Then I once read in a newspaper article, a very small anecdote. It said that a reporter ran into her in Las Vegas on Oscar night. So the reporter asked her, “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be in Los Angeles on the red carpet.” She said, “At least I can win something here.” So I thought, this is a woman who has a sense of humor and whose self-esteem doesn’t rely on her so-called career. So I thought, why not try to see if she wants to be in my movie, because I like to work with people I like, and try my chance and see if she would accept it. Then she told me that it was the one project that she accepted right away. She said that within 48 hours she decided. I didn’t know at that point that half of her ancestors were Chinese.

Finally, many of the ideas about the turn-of-the-century Chinese economy that you touch on in your film could be related to issues that we are dealing with today in our own financial system. Was that something you wanted to relate and get across to a modern audience with this film?

Yao: At this time, there is a historical relevance to it but even when I first started, I just talked about the system. I felt the ethics was something that was interesting, especially for China. When this movie was first going to come out in China, some said that this was kind of remote from our daily lives. I said, “What about poison milk?” They said, “Don’t ever even mention that. It’s too close.” Do you know about poison milk? In order to make milk thicker so that the taste is more like milk, they add some chemicals into it so it can become congealed. So, that actually caused a lot of babies, not even adults, to become sick. So that was a big scandal in China. The ethical standard in China is really down now and then Wall Street happened. Enron also, I wrote about it in my press notes when I saw people crying about it on the TV screen because their life savings was taken away by their own bosses. I thought that this was a time to talk about ethics. I thought this film, if there was a focus, and then the focus should be a man’s relationship with himself, a man’s relationship with other men, and a man’s relationship with money. These first two, a man’s relationship with himself and a man’s relationship with other men, that is Confucian. Then the last one is a merchant. So these people, these merchants consider themselves Confucian merchants so they have a certain way of dealing with money that is kind of not fashionable today.

Empire of Silver is in theaters now.

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