The King of Masks (Wu Tian-ming, 1996)
Mandarin Title: Bian Lian
"We're just actors, both of us. We don't count for much in society," Master Liang tells a sobbing little girl. Liang (Zhao Zhigang) is an opera star, known as the living Bodhisatva, the deity that grants wishing parents sons. Doggie, the little girl (Zhou Renying) once pretended to be a boy, succeeding in deceiving Wang Bianlian (Zhu Xu), the so-called King of Masks who needs a male heir to inherit his craft, into buying her. The society Liang is talking about is 1930's China, a society that is irrationally divided by the have's and the have not's, the males and the females. It is a society that is so consumed by its traditions and culture, that it unknowingly or knowingly places a portion of the populace to the margins. Liang talks about himself literally, that his stature in the arts is not enough to save Doggie's adoptive grandfather, but talks about Doggie figuratively, thet her being born a girl has left her an insignificant part of society, undeserving of the simple pleasures of family and dignity.
The King of Masks comments on society's fascination with replaceable facades. Wang's craft consists of a performance wherein he changes masks in a swift sway of his hands, predictably enchanting his many viewers some of which would bribe him to reveal his secrets. Liang has garnered a legendary reputation by impersonating a revered god, earning for him several influential patrons and a bevy of friends. These are shallow acts obviously, acts that constitute momentary pleasures for the working man or signifiers that heaven has graced the earth with a likely semblance of itself. Once that fascination is used to point out an injustice in a system that has functioned over the years, as let's say, a girl, abused and abandoned for the plain reason of her not having a penis, dons boys' clothing to simply be loved, it is met with scathing disapproval or scant attention. China, at that time, is prolonging a tradition that should have died a long time ago: little boys are being kidnapped, little girls are being sold or given away. An entire black market has emerged taking advantage of this as a result.
I'm making it sound like the film as one of those unentertaining yet oddly compelling films that stretch on and on for minutes just to drive a point. It's not. The King of Masks is fashioned like an amiable melodrama. You could just take it as it is, a genuinely likable tearjerker.
All of the performances are wonderful. Zhu Xu inhabits the role of the masks master with striking sincerity. Here we have a headstrong old man grabbing on that little bit of dignity by not sharing his obscure craft, not to the kindly Liang, not to those willing to pay handsomely, not even to the girl (the craft should be passed on to a male heir, supposedly to carry on the family legacy) who has come to call him her grandfather, but Zhu keeps the character grounded not by his insistence on antiquated social norms but by his basic humanity, his inherent ability to have his stony exterior thaw to genuine emotions. Zhou Renying, like all of cinema's kids trying to penetrate through the shells of crusty old folks (the children of Kolya (1996), Life is Beautiful (1997), and Central Station (1998), for example), is adorable. More importantly is how Zhou commands not only for pity but also for your compassion and even adulation. Her character is crafted as someone who's been through hell, to the point that life is no longer as precious to gamble with when push comes to shove, which is the reason why her final showcase of bravery (clearly emulated from an opera she and the masks king previously saw) is believable and admittedly heartbreaking.
Wu Tian-ming, producer of The Horse Thief (1986) and Red Sorghum (1987), Tian Zhuangzhuang and Zhang Yimou's breakthrough films (you can claim that he jump started the careers of both directors), directs the film. Wu doesn't have Tian's striking simplicity or Zhang's visual verve. He does wear his heart on his sleeve though, and The King of Masks is unabashedly melodramatic. The music swells perfectly on emotional cue and the close-ups are right on the target, just to catch the girl's comfortlessly face at the moment of pleading with raging tears. The film begs for your tears with the subtlety, not necessarily the efficiency, of a sledgehammer but whether you finish the film dry-eyed or not, you can appreciate the effort. At least, there lies a resonant message for all beneath its facade of being pure entertainment for the entire family.