06 Oct Q&A WITH CHRISTINE YAO, DIRECTOR OF EMPIRE OF SILVER
PHILLIP LORENZO: WHAT GAVE YOU THE INSPIRATION TO TELL THE STORY OF “THE WALL STREET OF CHINA”?
CHRISTINE YAO: There are several reasons that made me passionate about the story of Shanxi bankers: my own family ties to the region, my fascination with the culture of these merchants, and my desire to examine human behavior in the face of great challenges.
Ten years ago while reading the newspaper I came across an article about Shanxi merchants who, as a group, dominated the commerce world of China for 500 years during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 AD to 1910 AD). Since my family came from Shanxi, it was of particular interest to me to learn that the province, which had for the last 50 years come to be known for debilitating poverty and mining catastrophes, had at one point been the financial and commercial center of China for a lengthy period of time.
The vicissitude and randomnessof the region’s fortune intrigued me and I felt that in this lesser known region of the world lay a great wealth of history that was worthy of exploring.
Very few people know the significant contribution Shanxi merchants made to modern day business practices. The way they handled the social-political issues of their time reflected their progressive and forward-thinking mentality. For one, they invented, in the 15th century, the CEO system of management and the system of technical stock. Also, by making Confucian moral principles their business codes, they were highly ethical in their practices and dealings. Their piaohao or banking industry, which flourished during the 19th century, was an example of their resourcefulness and entrepreneurship. They invented a sophisticated bank check system, which remains impenetrable even for scholars today, to exploiting the monetary system of the Qingdynasty which was based on hard-to-transport silver ingots. Thereby they became the sole financial channel that facilitated the country’s commerce and finance markets. They controlled the financial well-being of the entire country. In effect, they functioned like the Wall Street functions in the West.
Beyond my personal ties to the region and my curiosity about the Shanxi merchants, I was to tell a story that somehow embodies a universal experience relatable to all people. Seven years ago, Enron scandal broke out on TV news. I watched the Enron employees being betrayed by their employers. During the same time, in Shanxi, the home of our bankers, coal miners in sub-standard mines died in mass on a monthly basis while the mine owners bought up fleets of luxury cars. All over the world, we saw businessmen turned into 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 versus money, man versus his fellow men and man versus himself.
LORENZO: HOW MUCH TIME AND HOW DIFFICULT WAS IT TO BALANCE THE SCOPE OF TELLING THE STORY OF A PIAOHAO (BANKING EMPIRE) WITH THE INTIMACY AND SENSITIVITY OF PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS AND FAMILY STRUGGLE?
YAO: This issue concerned us greatly during the writing process. We were aware that, though we want to talk about piaohao’s history, the story has to be a personal story that the audience could identify with in order to reach the audience emotionally. As a student of dramatic literature, I chose a few classics about royal families or powerful families like HAMLET, KING LEAR, and THE GODFATHER, as my guides to build a narrative through-line.
All of these family stories center upon the one issue which is often the most crucial turning point for any organization, succession of power. As such, I chose succession as the central plot of our story. A self-conflicted mind or a conflict of minds between opponents me, one of the most difficult dilemmas that plague all human existence is the conflict between one’s obligation to his family or society, and his personal, private desires. Furthermore, in up, one’s ideological leaning has direct bearing upon his own sense of obligation to his society. today, two schools of thought that originated 2000 years ago, Confucianism and the Legalism, still battle for ideological dominance in the business and the political arenas in China. Confucianism requires one to be true to his own conscience; Legalism, however, considers ends justify all means.
By exposing the characters’ belief systems, I tried to invite the audience to become intimate with the characters’ thinking process, and thereby identify with the characters’ passion, struggle and misery. The decisions, ultimately, become the future of their empire: the empire’s future is only the outcome of the characters’ thinking process. By intertwining all the dramatic elements, grand or intimate, I tried to build an organic whole that appeals to both the minds and the hearts of the audience.
LORENZO: THIS IS SUCH A MASSIVE EPIC, WITH LOTS OF EFFECTS, EXTRAS, AND LOCATIONS, HOW MUCH WORK TRULY WENT INTO THIS FILM AND HOW HAS IT AFFECTED YOUR FILMMAKING FUTURE?
YAO: Since this is a realistic movie, authenticity became the goal our entire team, both during the production and the post-production phases.
In order to convey the vastness of the world these bankers resided in, we shot on real locations and never in studios. We transferred 9 times during the shoot (the norm in China is 3 times due to the danger of traveling with around 200 trucks on often treacherous roads), traveled through 4 provinces (Gansu, Qinghai, Shanxi and Hibei) and shot in 13 cities and counties, on 46 locations. The odometer on my trailer was 5 times the distance between the east coast to the west coast of the US. We were able to do this because our line producer, Li Congxi, was a perfectionist with incredible leadership, and he came from the military. Owing to him, our production was run like a smooth military operation.
All of the set pieces and decor were real antique pieces. Art collectors and museums were very generous and supportive. For one scene we closed down a city museum for a few days because we emptied their entire exhibition.
The post production was completed in 9 countries and areas because talents resided in different countries. The CGI work, for instance, was done by companies from HK, US, England, Thailand and China, each company had its own specialty. For instance, in order to restore the bridge in Tianjin to its original grandeur and to erase all traces of modernity around it, we used CGI to change the sculptures, the lights and the banisters on the bridge, the buildings behind the bridge, the river bank and the water under the bridge, and for some shots, the sky above the bridge. Then we drew in moving people and vehicles in the distance. The CGI work itself took close to two years to finish. All together it took us 5 years to finish the film.
I think the adage that “you’re only as good as your team” was especially true in the case of EMPIRE. I was blessed with the opportunity to work with many world-class masters who believed in because of its subject matter. Worthy subject matters are hard to find. I’m still looking for the next story worthy of telling.
LORENZO: WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH SUCH GREAT TALENT AS AARON KWOK, TIELIN ZHANG, HAO LEI, AND JENNIFER TILLY?
YAO: All the stars were pros in terms of both talent and attitude. They were very giving and very easy to work with. Hitchcock said 95% of film-making is casting. We were lucky to be able to find the ideal cast, and what was left for me to do was to provide a relaxing environment for the stars in order them to give their best work.
For the first take on the first day of shoot, if an actor looks at the monitor and likes the work he produced, he will trust the director and from that point on the work would be easy for both. We had a week’s rehearsal before the shooting started, and we also visited the remnant compounds of the Shanxi merchants to soak up the culture, so to speak. Quite often a set up took only 3 or 4 takes and would be satisfied by what had been done. As a result, even though it was a shoot that transferred 9 times, we were on schedule and did not even go over one day, which is unusual in China.
Phillip Lorenzo is the former Managing Director of the San Diego Asian Film Foundation (now known as Pacific Arts Movement).