Family Business: Christina Yao and Empire of Silver

There are two empires in flux in Empire of Silver, the debut feature film from director Christina Yao. The first is the Qin Empire, China's ruling dynasty at the time the film takes place in 1899, an ancient empire struggling to change in the face of Boxer rebels and European influences. The other is the banking empire of Master Kang, a wealthy man preparing his indifferent son, Third Master, to take over the family business. The film is a sprawling family epic, filmed on location and featuring lush cinematography capturing the colorful history of the period.

Considering the power and visual boom of the film, Yao is soft-spoken, her voice barely rising above a whisper, making it occasionally hard to hear her over the Muzak her Westchase hotel has graciously decided to play in the lobby. But she does her work undaunted, both as a first-time filmmaker and as a woman in a male-dominated profession.

"I think that, in a professional setting, it's like judging a piano player," she says. "You know the minute they sit down and start to play, whether they're good or not. But I think there are some amateur people, they have no other way to judge you, so they have to judge you by your gender, they have to judge you by your race. But if you are in a real, professional setting, people judge you by your skill."

Her skill is apparent, at least to the three fans, (a middle-aged man and two young women) who approach her during the interview. She takes time to speak with them in Chinese and take pictures with them. She gives them a feeling of pride, the man says, showing me the flyers he's made to advertise the film's run at AMC Studio 30. "It's like the Wall Street of China," he says.

After they leave, I ask Yao if fans come up to her on a regular basis. "Never," she replies. "But the community [in Houston] has been very warm and hospitable."

She is in Houston to promote the film, which has won festival awards everywhere from Shanghai to Orlando. She explains that the film was an assignment, but she wanted to make it for personal reasons.

"My parents came from that province in China," she explains. "My father's family was of the merchant class. When my family moved to Taiwan from China, they didn't talk about their past -- people don't talk about their past because it's usually too painful."

She learned about her family history from her father's brothers, she says, who told her the family had dealt in a variety of commodities, including furs, salt and sugar.

To prepare for the film, Yao learned as much as she could about Chinese merchants, reading books and interviewing scholars. The rigidity class and its system are on full display, as is the reverence for the family's ancestors.

"Everyone I talked to said, "If you want to do an honest portrayal, you have to talk about their system and you have to talk about their spirit,'" she says.

Empire of Silver starts tomorrow at AMC Studio 30, 2949 Dunvale Street. For information, call 888-262-4386.

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