The King of Masks

Dir: Tian-Ming Wu, 1996. Starring: Xu Zhu, Renying Zhou, Zhigang Zhao. Chinese. Asian Cinema.
The King of Masks

To be honest, the number of modern or even present Chinese films that I have seen is very little, which is a shame to say the least. And while I don’t have much to compare this film to, I would still argue that based on it, one could conclude that China varies in extremes, in terms of artistic expression and tradition, compared to other East Asian cultures. But when I stumbled upon The King of Masks, a new aspect of Chinese culture was introduced: the traditional and male dominated performing arts.

The film is about a lonely performer named Master Bianlian Wang (Xu Zhu), who has a very unique and superbly rare talent of performing Sichuan Change Art, a form of magic involving elaborate handmade masks being changed upon one’s face fast enough to create the illusion of a transformation without any noticeable interruption. As a performer of the art, which is passed down only in families and only to males, Wang worries that his dying art will become extinct because he does not have a son to pass it onto. He is given offers by highly popular Master Liang (Zhigang Zhao), a leader of the Sichuan Opera and also praised as "The Living Bodhisattva," to join the Opera, but he remains true to his desire to stay solo.

One day he ventures to an underground market where unwanted children are being sold. Here we see the harsh reality which parents in China must face. By law or necessity, having more than one child is practically impossible and, in deciding which sex is more beneficial to one's future and estate, the males tend to be first choice. After feeling deflated by the various offers of affordable female children, he stumbles upon an expensive male child (Renying Zhou), who beckons to him with charm and the traditional elderly respect, "Grandfather." Wang buys the child and believes that he has finally found a healthy and obedient heir to pass his art to.

The pair bonds and Wang gives him the nickname Doggie, stemming from the Chinese belief that God will not take a person early in life if they have the nickname of an animal. Everything seems perfect until the day comes when Wang discovers that Doggie is actually a girl. Distraught and anguished by this discovery, Wang begins teaching her the gruesome and impressive art of Chinese acrobatics and agrees to let her be a part of his performances, but not to teach her the art. But Doggie’s determination and curiosity with his craft sparks a surge of mixed emotions, as she and Master Liang believe that she is worthy of the art and that gender is only an outdated concept, if not an illusion.

The cinematography is simple, but the lighting is risky and well-done, especially in night scenes, of which there are a lot. I personally tip my hat to anyone who can successfully tell stories in the dark using color film, for its vivid effects and the skill needed to achieve them. The Eastern philosophy present in the film is rich, as are the characters who exemplify such ways of perceiving the world. Master Liang, who is a man playing a woman in the Sichuan Opera, is a very well developed character and sort of acts as a mediator between Wang and Doggie. I’ve only seen a similar depiction of the Sichuan Opera in Farewell My Concubine, also a wonderful Chinese film. But above all other performances, young Zhou steals the show. Her performance was without flaws and equipped with a sort of inspirational glow that girls, and everyone for that matter, should see. This is a grand example of modern Chinese culture, and certainly of pre-modern culture since tradition’s reach in the East extends even to present day. It is appropriate for all ages, and would make for a wonderful family film. Highly Recommended!

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
May 17, 2010 4:23pm
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