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China’s Gekko Runs Banking Empire; Brolin Nails Mezuza: Movies

Aaron Wok and Hao Lei in "Empire of Silver," which opens on Friday in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Source: NeoClassics Films Ltd. via Bloomberg

In “Empire of Silver,” a colorful saga about China’s early version of “Wall Street,” the villain is named Lord Kang instead of Gordon Gekko and he’s a banking baron rather than a corporate raider.

Otherwise, the similarities are striking. In both films, greed drives money men to act in sordid ways.

Christina Yao’s debut feature takes place in 1899, when a group of Chinese merchants from Shanxi province ran a banking empire known as “piaohao.”

The Shanxi group controlled the nation’s money transfers and deposits, used secret codes and even practiced a form of profit-sharing. They ran their operation with modern efficiency and were so powerful they sometimes challenged China’s rulers.

“Empire of Silver” uses a fictional family to tell the story. Ruthless Lord Kang (Tielin Zhang) wants one of his four sons, known as Third Master, to succeed him as head of his banking domain. But Third Master (Aaron Kwok) is suspicious of his father’s shady dealings and resentful that the old man stole away his true love (Hao Lei), who is now his stepmother.

The father-son conflict and financial maneuvering of the Shanxi bankers play out against the backdrop of historic events like the Boxer Rebellion, a nationalistic movement that opposed foreign influence in China.

Yao, a veteran theater director, captures the atmosphere and look of the time with finely crafted costumes, handsome cinematography and the use of authentic old buildings.

Though the story and acting sometimes veer into melodrama - - what is Jennifer Tilly doing in this movie, anyway? -- “Empire of Silver” is an absorbing look at a world little-known to Westerners.

“Empire of Silver,” from NeoClassics Films, opens tomorrow in New York, Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Rating: ***


Oliver Tate, the protagonist and narrator of “Submarine,” is a precocious Welsh teenager who likes reading the dictionary, feels guilty about dissecting frogs and tries to look mature by smoking a pipe and listening to French records.

At the moment, his two main goals are seducing his bad-girl classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige) and breaking up an affair he suspects his mom (Sally Hawkins) is having with a spike-haired old boyfriend who’s now a self-help guru (Paddy Considine).

The first feature from comedian and music-video director Richard Ayoade, “Submarine” is a sweet and sour coming-of-age story based on a novel by Joe Dunthorne. It’s original, funny and as eccentric as its main character, delightfully played by newcomer Craig Roberts.

Plot developments involve dog ashes in a barrel, a brain tumor, pyromania and dimmer switches. Don’t get too literal and you’ll enjoy the ride.

“Submarine,” from the Weinstein Co., opens tomorrow in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: ***

‘Love, Wedding, Marriage’

“Love, Wedding, Marriage” covers all three topics, with an emphasis on the last. Actor Dermot Mulroney’s directing debut is mostly about what happens after the wedding bells stop ringing.

His sitcomish romantic comedy centers on two couples: Marriage counselor Ava (Mandy Moore) and her new hunky husband Charlie (Kellan Lutz), and Ava’s parents, a mismatched pair (played by white-haired James Brolin and still-beautiful Jane Seymour) who are about to celebrate their 30th anniversary.

When Ava learns that her mom wants a divorce, partly because her husband had an affair 25 years ago, she advises her parents to try marriage therapy. But that doesn’t work and her obsession with their problems puts increasing strains on her own marriage.

Thailand Trip

Ava, a hopeless romantic, tries everything to keep her folks together. She shows her frustrated mom, who’s planning to take off for Thailand, the horrors of speed dating. And she lets her peculiar dad, who nails a mezuza to the doorpost after rediscovering his Jewish identity, move in with her and her husband.

She later resorts to more drastic measures, and a few other twists follow before the totally predictable ending. Just remember the film isn’t called “Love, Wedding, Marriage, Divorce.”

“Love, Wedding, Marriage,” from IFC Films, opens tomorrow in New York. Rating: *1/2

What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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