Most films that make it to the United States from mainland China touch on three themes: family ties, political upheavals and traditional Chinese arts. The King of Masks deals more with the latter, but through its intimate story of a makeshift family, indicates some of the social changes to come.
Set in 1930 in the Sichuan province, The King of Masks focuses on street performer Bian Lian Wang (Chu Yuk), a master at the art of "face changing," a rapid-fire quick-change of cloth masks that he utilizes in audience-pleasing performances.
His skill so impresses Master Liang Sao Lang (Zhao Zhigang), a star Chinese Opera performer, that he offers Wang a place in his troupe. The grandfatherly "King of Masks" politely refuses, choosing to continue his peripatetic lifestyle on a houseboat accompanied by his monkey. But the encounter with Master Liang spurs a decision: Wang must find an heir to carry on his dying art.
In his family tradition, face-changing can’t be taught to outsiders, only male family members. So Wang goes to an orphanage where among all the pleading girls – female children are seen to have no intrinsic value – he miraculously finds Doggie (Chao Yim Yin), a 7-year-old who perfectly fits the bill.
After placing his hopes for the future on Doggie, Wang discovers he’s been conned. Doggie is actually a girl, and she quickly goes from being a beloved grandson to a barely tolerated servant. Even when the agile Doggie becomes an acrobatic warm-up to his face-changing performances, their relationship remains chilly.
It’s at this point that screenwriter Wei Minglung and director Wu Tianming (Old Well) turn toward old-fashioned melodrama, putting an innocent Wang in prison and Doggie on a desperate mission to free him.
There’s a comfortable predictability to the exquisitely filmed The King of Masks, which manages to slide in gender politics – Master Liang’s impersonation of women makes him famous, but Doggie is reviled for posing as a boy – along with its liberal doses of sentimentality. The end result is a forward-thinking traditionalist film, which seeks to uphold ancient customs while still giving individuals enough breathing room to make up their own rules.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].