Empire of Silver (Baiyin diguo)


Clear-eyed man looking ahead, supportive but clingy woman - stereotypes anyone?

Clear-eyed man looking ahead, supportive but clingy woman – stereotypes anyone?

(2009) Drama (NeoClassic) Aaron Kwok, Tie Lin Zhang, Hao Lei, Jennifer Tilly, Lan Tian Chang, Zhi Cheng Ding, Jonathan Kos-Read, Zhen Yu Lei, Zhong Lu, John Paisley, Shih Chieh King, Niu Tien, Deshun Wang. Directed by Christina Yao

Offshoring

 

Money is a great corrupter. As China entered the 20th century and looked to enter the world as well after centuries of isolationism, the Shangxi province became a financial center since there was no central currency at the time. Merchants in Shangxi and banks, hoarding silver, became the economic power in China.

Third Master (Kwok) has distanced himself from his family. His father (Zhang) is aging and wants to hand off his banking empire to one of his sons, but his two other sons are clearly unsuitable. Third Master is the brightest and most promising of the lot, but he has had a huge rift with his father since dear old dad married the love of his life – that is the love of Third Master’s life.

He still has feelings for Madame Kang (Lei) which she secretly returns. She has developed a close friendship – a kind of sisterhood in fact – with Mrs. Landdeck (Tilly), the wife of the pastor (Kos-Read) who has a similarly troubled marriage.

As Third Master prepares to take the reins of his father’s bank, he has to fight off the wolves of China’s Wall Street as well as actual wolves. If China is ever to become a world power, it must first enter the world century and the feudalistic culture both politically and economically isn’t disposed towards the radical changes necessary. Something has to give.

Yao is a first-time director who has a visionary eye. She also has a sprawling, epic story to tell and while there are elements of Wall Street as well as Hero in it, there are times that I get the sense that she isn’t sure exactly what kind of film she intends to make. My best guess is that she’s trying to do something unique which is bloody ambitious for a first time out.

Kwok, not terribly well-known in the US although he’s a big pop star and actor in China, is a compelling lead. Brooding and grave at times, you get the sense of Third Master’s inner conflict even if you don’t understand the language. There’s some impressive acting and screen presence going on here.

Considering the world’s economic problems and China’s own position in the world these days, this is one of those rare occasions where a period piece is timely viewing. I can forgive the script’s occasional forays into confusion particularly since the images we’re shown are so compelling. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these pictures are worth millions.

WHY RENT THIS: Kwok is a terrific lead. Explores a lot of different elements. Gorgeous cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Meanders a bit plot-wise. May be trying to do too much.

FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, brief nudity and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on the historical novel Valley of Silver by Cheng Yi, who is himself descended from actual Shangxi merchants as seen in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19,036 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: House of Flying Daggers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!

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Saint Ralph


Saint Ralph

Adam Butcher wistfully ponders why he chose a bowl haircut over something less dorky.

(2004) Drama (Goldwyn) Adam Butcher, Campbell Scott, Jennifer Tilly, Gordon Pinsent, Shauna MacDonald, Tamara Hope, Frank Crudele, Michael Kanev, Chris Ploszczansky. Directed by Michael McGowan

Sometimes we want something so desperately that we are willing to abandon reason to get it. This is particularly true of the very young, particularly when they are faced with something so terrible they can’t comprehend it.

Ralph Walker attends Catholic school in the industrial town of Hamilton, Ontario circa 1953. He’s a bit on the wild, undisciplined side, but the stern Father Fitzpatrick (Pinsent) forbears somewhat, because he’s aware that the boy’s father has deserted the family and his mother (MacDonald) is seriously ill. Still, he is being cared for by his grandparents, so a little leeway is thrown the boy’s way.

Not so from the general student body, which treats the scrawny, awkward Ralph like the local whipping boy. To make matters work, Ralph – being 14 years old – is discovering just how serious puberty can be. I won’t say every waking thought is taken up with sex, but maybe two out of three. When an occasion of self-abuse at the public pool lands the boy in hot water, Fitzpatrick orders the punishment/penance (this is a Catholic school, after all) to be running on the cross-country team. A little physical exertion might just exhaust the impure thoughts out of the boy, or so the thinking went.

The cross country coach, Father Hibbert (Scott) is a former marathon champion himself, and doesn’t see much in the way of potential in Ralph. After all, Ralph doesn’t seem to inclined to apply himself and is woefully out of shape. The kid is very close to losing his place at the school, wandering directionless through life.

That’s much truer than anyone knows. The reality is that there are no grandparents. Ralph is on his own, subsisting on canned goods his mother had left. There is nobody to take care of him while his mother is ill, so he just makes do. His days are made up of school, then visits to his mother and a sympathetic nurse (Tilly) while he dreams of a young girl named Claire (Hope) that he encountered on a baseball diamond while smoking in between classes. That was Ralph smoking, by the way, not Claire.

Then things get worse. His mom falls into a coma and her prognosis looks bleak. It will take a miracle for her to recover, and Ralph feels heavily the responsibility to manufacture one. A chance remark by Father Hibbert (“The Boston Marathon is the most prestigious footrace in the world. It would be a miracle if someone on this team won it, so put it out of your minds”) sets off a lightning bolt in the 14-year-old. This could be precisely the miracle his mother needs! 

Ralph sets out to train for the marathon. At first, his attempts are pretty laughable, because he simply doesn’t know how. He gets a book from a former marathon champion to help him train, but it turns out that the champion wound up in an asylum shortly after writing the book and most of the information is useless. Ralph remains an object of ridicule, but there is something different about him now. He is focused, possessed with this idea of winning the marathon. Although Father Fitzgerald is now suspicious of Ralph’s living arrangements and is looking into the phantom grandparents, Father Hibbert sees the boy’s determination and agrees to train him. 

Still, it looks like the goal Ralph has set for himself is insurmountable. His first race ends in disaster, and Ralph is depressed. However, he trains hard and actually wins a local marathon. Now he’s getting support and respect from the community, but there are still many obstacles. His house burns down while he is sleeping one night; he barely gets out alive. Now with no place to live, Boston just weeks away and his training far from complete, it looks like Ralph’s miracle is just too far out of reach.

This Canadian production has a great deal of warmth and heart, which while not necessarily missing from similar American movies, is at least in short supply. The movie chugs around without getting overly schmaltzy or self-conscious, and juvenile actor Butcher holds his own, although Scott does a very nice job as the sympathetic ex-marathon running priest, while Tilly is sympathetic (not to mention dang hot in a nurse’s uniform).

There are some extended conversations with God who resembles a young Sid Caesar, and some television-styled montages (this movie was made for Canadian TV and then released theatrically in the States), and a Godawful version of Leonard Cohen’s beautiful “Hallelujah” sung by Gord Downie of the Canadian cult band the Tragically Hip. Right song, wrong singer.

Still, there is a bit of charm and not a little bit of Catholic angst. As a former Catholic school survivor, I can admit to finding the parochial school sequences a little too close to home, in a good way. There isn’t anything life-changing about Saint Ralph but as family movies go, this is a pretty solid one. Director McGowan not only evokes the period but also the surroundings, and does it well. As a former marathoner himself, he understands the motivations of the long-distance runner and the proverbial loneliness that is required, but also the triumph of a race well run.

WHY RENT THIS: More heart than you’ll find in any ten movies. Authentic place and time. Fine performances by Butcher and Tilly.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Made for Canadian TV and has television production values.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a bit of sexual content and yes, even a little partial nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Race Around the Bay, which Ralph is depicted winning, is an actual event and is the oldest structured road race in North America, predating the Boston Marathon by three years.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4M on an unreported production budget; the film probably made money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Last Lions