Director films movie about Enron-style greed, set in the 19th century

By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly

Director Christina Yao (left) with actor Jennifer Tilly, on the set of “Empire of Silver” (Photo from Christina Yao)

Directing, co-producing, and co-writing a multimillion dollar Chinese historical epic movie might sound like an impossible task, especially when you’ve never shot a feature film before.

Christina Yao, originally from Taiwan, rose to the challenge with amazing acuity to complete her film “Empire of Silver,” which is screening locally this week.

Not bad from someone who wasn’t sure an artistic path was for her.

“I never set out to be an artist,” confesses Yao. “Even now, I flinch when I hear myself labeled as one.”

She credits her acting teacher at Stanford University for encouraging her creativity.

“I always knew I had the instinctive need to be connected to my environment. Now, I could do it through theater work! It made me feel useful and fulfilled at the same time. … I would say this has been the biggest blessing in my life.”

Christina Yao on the set of “Empire of Silver” (Photo from Christina Yao)


“Empire of Silver” is set roughly 110 years ago, among Shanxi merchants of China, who, as Yao explained, “invented the CEO system of management, which gave full rein to the professional managers of the businesses and did not even allow the investors or their families to be on the business compounds.”

“They also invented the system of technical stock, which is now the backbone of all the high growth industries in the world,” she added. “Along with these business measures, they pride themselves for being ‘Confucian merchants,’ meaning they require ethical behaviors in their own business dealings.”“About the same time,” Yao said, “the Enron fiasco broke out on TV news. I watched the Enron employees weeping on camera after finding out being betrayed by their employers. … All over the world, we see businessmen became 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 and money, man with his fellow men, and man with himself.”

Of course, such an ambitious undertaking requires finances of its own.

The backing for “Empire of Silver” came about, Yao said, from an investor who can — like Yao herself — trace his lineage back to the Shanxi province of China.

“He said he wanted to do something worthwhile for the Chinese culture,” Yao explained. “And he wanted to bring tourism to the Shanxi province because, today, the province is known for coal mining catastrophes and little else. … Since the project was offered to me, I did not have to fight for funding. Also, I had complete control over it, so we were able to take the time and make it the way we felt right.”

The production team obtained permission to film in mainland China, but that was only the first of their many procedural challenges.

According to Yao, “During the shoot of four and a half months, we … traveled through four provinces (Gansu, Qinghai, Shanxi, and Hebei) and shot in 13 cities and counties, on 46 sets. The odometer on my trailer was five times the distance between the East Coast and West Coast of the United States.

“We were able to do this because our line producer, Li Congxi, was a perfectionist and had training to do war movies for the August First Army Studio. He was a retired colonel himself and had two admiral generals as his assistants.”

Yao also praises her cast, including well-known Chinese actors Aaron Kwok, Hao Lei, and Tielin Zhang, along with American and half Chinese actress Jennifer Tilly.

“All the stars were pros in terms of both talent and attitude,” Yao affirmed. “They were very giving and very easy to work with. Aaron [Kwok] had the ‘killer’ look, which is so common among these determined merchants.

“Hao Lei in life is known to be strong-minded, passionate, and stubborn at times, which perfectly matches the personality of [the character] Madame Kang. Tielin Zhang is known in China for his portrayal of emperors in film and on television. In person, he commands a room whenever he enters it.

“Jennifer Tilly had been one of the Hollywood actresses that I admired and followed for a long time before I invited her to join us. She was a hard worker and a fun person to be with.”

When asked about her next move, Yao says she’s still considering her options.  Working on ‘Empire,’ ” she concluded, “taught me one thing. Subject matter is what makes or breaks a movie. When you have a worthy subject, best artists would want to join and devote their lives to the project. It would not be difficult to form a good team, and thereby one is guaranteed with good results. For any, narrative subject matter is king, it is even more so for film making.” (end)

“Empire of Silver” opens Friday, Dec. 2, at the AMC Pacific Place Theater, 600 Pine Street in downtown Seattle. For prices and show times, check local listings or call 1-888-262-4386.

Andrew Hamlin can be reached at

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