Dir: Christina Yao. China-Taiwan-Hong Kong. 2009. 115mins.
Savings and loans crises meld with an unrequited love story in Taiwanese stage director Christina Yao’s first feature. Set in mainland China around 1899, this odd epic has a polished and well-crafted look - it’s clear that reams of research has gone into getting the costumes and sets of this Europeanised stage in China’s history just right. But while the film may get a boost from the timeliness of the story, which has a lot to do with banking ethics, the lack of depth of the central character played by Aaron Kwok, and the sheer confusion of the themes and stories that clamour for our attention, are going to make this a hard sell outside of core Far Eastern markets.
Chiselled heartthrob Aaron Kwok and talented actress Hao Lei (better known on the mainland for her TV work than for her first-class turn in Lou Ye’s banned Summer Palace) will have some purchase in Asia. But elsewhere, this will face the distribution dilemma of decent but unexceptional Chinese costumers like The Banquet: there’s little beyond one relatively flatline swordfight here to keep the action fans happy, and not enough dramatic substance for more highbrow audiences. DVD sales to Asian fanbase and diaspora markets should be a little more upbeat.
Onscreen prologue captions inform us that, at the end of the nineteenth century, Shanxi province was considered to be the Wall Street of China thanks to its concentration of powerful merchants and banks which still used silver ingots as their main currency and security. One of the family-run banking houses is controlled by Lord Kang (Zhang) whose conflicted third son (Kwok), known according to the conventions of the time as the Third Master, is a ne’er-do-well who spends his time in dissolute pursuits. When his brothers meet with an unlikely series of accidents, he suddenly becomes the heir on whom the future of his father’s powerful but vulnerable banking empire rests.
The love interest comes in the form of his stepmother (Lei). Some steamy flashbacks reveal that she and the Third Master had a thing going back when she was his English teacher but it was his stern father she ended up marrying.
This pile up of themes - love story, father-son conflict (the Third Master doesn’t approve of Lord Kang’s autocratic, uncharitable ways), Confucius-meets-Harvard-Business-school advice on doing business, plus state-of-the-nation fillers about the Boxers, foreign missionaries, farmers, bandits and the arrival of the first paper banknotes -all proves too much. But the film does look great and for those in the mood, this undemanding pot-boiler will be just the ticket.
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Crystal Clear Pictures
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