Director Christina Yao discusses her directorial debut Empire of Silver, finding these historical locations, working with the cast, and much more
Christina Yao makes her feature directorial debut with the incredibly ambitious (and gorgeous) movie Empire of Silver, although she is no stranger to directing. She has directed over 30 plays for theater companies in America and Taiwan. However, when she heard about the story behind Empire of Silver, a seldom-told true story about a powerful Chinese banking family in 1899, she took action, writing the screenplay and securing financing for her directorial debut. The story follows the tumultuous war-torn events in China, which causes the slacker son of this banking dynasty (Aaron Kwok), who wants nothing to do with the family business, to step up and lead the business, although he disagrees with some of his father's moral values. This sweeping tale also includes an intriguing sub-plot where the son still pines for the woman who is now his stepmother (Lei Hao), his first love who was stolen from him by his father.
After a successful film festival run, Empire of Silver will open in New York, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington, D.C., and Toronto on June 3. I recently had the chance to speak with director Christina Yao over the phone about Empire of Silver. Here's what she had to say.
The movie is based on this historical story, but it seems that this isn't a very widely-known story. I was curious about when you first heard about this tale of the Shanxi Province, and when you first decided to write the script?
Christina Yao: It was not even really known to me. When I first started to do the project, the only knowledge I had about these merchants was based on a very small article in a Chinese newspaper in San Francisco. We knew there were a lot of big monuments in Shanxi, which were indicative of the wealth that was once there. There was also the book that once cited the place as, 'The Wall Street of China.' We thought it might be an interesting subject matter to explore. Then I visited some scholars and, what they said to me was these merchants were known for their ethics and also for their wisdom. They said, if you don't touch on these two aspects of them, then you don't really touch the subject. I thought that would be the direction, which included very strict sexual behavior codes. Their marital restriction was probably the only group of people in the 4,000 years of China that made men monogamous. The monogamy was the code that they had to follow, to the extent that they could not divorce. I'm not only talking about China, but also the West! Then, also, in terms of managerial systems, they had established a bonus system, starting in the 19th Century, and they also had a professional management system, where a CEO is appointed and the investors could not even step into the compound, in any way. There is a clear distinction between investors and managers. I thought it was all very interesting and quite unique, not just in China, but elsewhere too. I thought it was interesting and worthwhile to explore.
I believe you also served as the art director on the film. The set pieces were truly stunning. I read about all these ancient buildings and bridges you found for the movie. Can you talk about finding these locations? Was it tricky to shoot there and still preserve the integrity of these structures?
Christina Yao: Most of the buildings we shot in are really museums now. They really just opened up for us to shoot in there. The building where the abacus scene happened, it's a Ming Dynasty building. When I first went there, it was so dusty and dirty. I asked if I could power-wash the place, if we could get the machines from Beijing and power-wash the place. The museum director came to me and said, 'You know, this is one of the two buildings in all of China that has paint with gold flakes in it.' So... OK, all right (Laughs). For that building, we had to build layers of racks. It's a two-story building, and we had to get really high and shoot because we just couldn't get the camera in the building. It would be too dangerous for the building itself. It wasn't hard to find these buildings, because they are already museums and able to be viewed. On the other hand, the place itself, where the actual 'Wall Street of China' is, it's really a bad place. It's just yellow earth, and nothing else. There was no mountain around it, it was just a very barren place. But, I went just south of the province and there was this huge, almost Grand Canyon type of scenery called Chai Ha Mountain. I'm after realism, and I'm also after naturalism, but that doesn't mean that I can't change geography. So I moved the mountain to the north and made that a part of the scenery. Now the movie is quite colorful, because you have the green mountain and all the colors you will find in the mountain... but it's not real. I just made the movie look prettier by making the mountains move north.
No, it really worked. It's a gorgeous film.
Christina Yao: Thank you.
I also read about the costume design, and how you wanted to use all these authentic pieces. Can you talk a bit about remaining true to that period, and the challenges that the costumes brought?
Christina Yao: First of all, the research was extensive. The team bought pieces from Hong Kong, even the skirts because the women of olden days, were much smaller. Lei Hao wore those skirts so, often when she was shooting, she was holding the skirts because she was afraid the skirts would fall. For the men, we decided that black would be the only color of men's clothing. Then, we had to decide how to dress it up, how to distinguish the wealthy from the poor. It's the little details, like the buttons, or the hats. That was pretty much what we did. Even though black was very dominant, we also looked for all different types of materials, for different shades of black. That was difficult too, to look for the different shades.
There is really a quite a diverse cast here, with Aaron Kwok, Tielin Zhang and especially with Jennifer Tilly coming in. Can you talk about assembling the cast and bringing this team together?
Christina Yao: First of all, I just look for the best actors. My definition of good actors is they normally have a very strong urge to engage. I think that's how they got into the trade. If you interview them, you know they're going to have the passion inside. Then, also, I look for people who easily carry their emotions on their face, even if they're trying to hide their emotions, the fact that they're hiding is also showing. Those are the personalities that I'm looking for, but, at the same time, I also have to look for types. If you cast it right, the actors can bring so much of their own type into the role. For Aaron's role, I was looking for someone who had a fierce determination inside, that has that killer look. Aaron is the only singer in Hong Kong, who, after giving a concert for over three hours, he doesn't ask any of his friends to come in. He's the one who dances and sings through, for three hours, for his audience. That was the kind of determination I was looking for. We were lucky that he liked the script and the subject matter and shaving his head was not a big deal for him (Laughs). I made sure that the entire family looked like him. Aaron was the person that I used for a guideline to look for all the other actors around him.
As your feature debut, this is a very ambitious undertaking.
Christina Yao: Thank you.
I really enjoyed the film as well. Coming from a theater background, what were the things you found to be more challenging that you expected, or less challenging than you expected, when you came into a feature like this?
Christina Yao: I knew it was going to be difficult, but I also knew it was a golden opporunity, not only for me as a director, but to find a subject matter like this. I always felt that the subject matter is half of the success, and half of the failure. I just thought if I could put all I could and more into it, and come out alive, then I would have a worthwhile production. That's what I went in with. In terms of finding the right team, that was difficult, but I still think writing the script was the most difficult. You don't really know the final goal until you reach there. That's what I thought was most difficult.
Is there anything else that you're working on now that you can talk about?
Christina Yao: I'm working on a comedy, sort of a farce comedy. I think I need a change.
You're writing that right now then?
Christina Yao: We're starting on it now, but I won't be writing it. I'll have someone else write it this time.
I know this is a ways off, but there is such a rich, historical background for this story. Do you plan on including any historical content for DVD features when that time comes?
Christina Yao: I don't know. I don't know what they will be doing. We do have a making-of featurette, and in that we have the historical pictures, so maybe that will be shown. But, I don't know what they have in mind. I will definitely bring that up with them, if you think that will be of interest.
Absolutely. The more I read about it, there was a lot in the movie, but there is still a lot that can be told. I think it would be cool to see some of this stuff on the DVD.
Christina Yao: OK. I will tell them that.
Excellent. To wrap up, what would you like to say to anyone who might be curious about Empire of Silver about why they should check it out in theaters on June 3?
Christina Yao: I think it is an interesting movie. As a team, we spent over 100% of our energy to get it done, because we thought it was a family movie, not just for China, but also for the world. It talks about relationships, men with women, men with money, and also it has all the necessary visual aspects to make it entertaining. It will be an enjoyable evening. I think they will learn a little bit more about China, about China's past, and also about what China is heading towards. I think there is a definite return to traditional values among the people in China. The lifestyle is easier now. People can think about their spiritual selves now, in their daily lives. Those are good signs in China and we would like the West to know about it, and feel good about it too. That's how I feel about it.
Great. That's about all I have for you, Christina. Thanks so much for your time and best of luck on your new project.
Christina Yao: Thank you very much.
You can watch Christina Yao's directorial debut Empire of Silver on June 3 in New York, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington, D.C., and Toronto. Empire of Silver may also expand in the coming weeks, and you can CLICK HERE for more information.