The banks were no better in 1899 China...

Chi-Tai-HK. 2009. 115mins. Director Christina Yao Production companies Serenity Entertainment International, Crystal Clear Pictures, Polybona Films International sales HanWay Films (44) 20 7290 0750 Producers Chiao Hsiung-ping, Christina Yao Screenplay Christina Yao, Cheng Yi Cinematography Anthony Pun Yiu-ming Main cast Aaron Kwok, Zhang Tielin, Hao Lei, Jennifer Tilly, Cheng Ding-zhi, Cheng Lei

Set in mainland China around 1899, stage director Christina Yao's first feature is an odd epic with a polished and well-crafted look. Her timely story involving banking ethics suffers, however, from a superficial lead character, played by Aaron Kwok, and the sheer confusion of themes and stories that clamour for attention.

Outside Asia, this will face the distribution dilemma that decent but unexceptional Chinese costumers such as The Banquet have had to deal with: there is little here beyond one relatively flat swordfight to keep action fans happy, and not enough dramatic substance for more highbrow audiences.

Onscreen captions inform us that, at the end of the 19th 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.

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 (Hao Lei). Some steamy flashbacks reveal she and the Third Master had a relationship when she was his English teacher but it was his stern father she married.

This pile up of themes - love story, father-son conflict, Confucius-meets-Harvard advice on 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 in the end. But the film looks great and for those in the mood, this undemanding pot-boiler could be just the ticket.