King of Masks, The (Bian Lian, China, 1996) *** 1/2
Directed by Wu Tianming. Written by Wei Minglung. Produced by Mona Fong & Ho Titus. Photography, Mu Dayuan. Original Music, Zhao Jiping. Cast: Zhu Xu (Wang), Zhou Ren-ying (Doggie), Zhao Zhigang (Master Liang), et al. A Shaw Brothers production (Hong Kong). A Samuel Goldwyn Co. release. In Mandarin, subtitled in English. 101 minutes. Not rated (if so, G)
Don't blink, or you'll miss something. Something good, beautiful, funny, touching , affectionate. King of Masks is first-rate in every respect and a joy to watch whether you're a sophisticated cinephile, a casual filmgoer, or a child of any age.
The film has received a large number of awards, internationally, including, in China, Best Director, Best Child Actor, Best Co-Production. The setting is in Sichuan province of the early 1930s. (One can tell the period from many clues, including the sole automobile shown, and avoid some reviewers' mistaken dating to "the turn of the century")
Master Wang is an elderly street performer who does amazing sleight of hand. He turns his head around and, in a flash is wearing a mask, then another, then yet another... How he does it is a secret. How the film does it is no secret: clever editing. It is so quick that you may wonder whether such an impressive performance really did exist.
Wang's wife left him long ago. His male child died young.. In his less-than-modest houseboat he has been plying the rivers of Sichuan (the Yang-Tze and its tributaries) alone save for "The General," his clever monkey who passes the hat around. Wang's performances attract crowds of admirers, yet bring in pitifully few coins, especially since these are times of floods, economic crises and hunger.
He is a lovable, beautifully mannered man who loves his profession passionately. His huge sorrow is that after he's gone, there will be no one to take over. A hard-to-find, first-rate pupil is needed. Young, suffering girls, flock to him to offer their services, for nothing. Mothers try to sell their daughters. But it won't do. Wang's successor, by tradition and by divination has to be male.
A bright-looking boy, about 8, does catch Wang's eye and ear. His father (who will turn out to be his tyrannical owner) will sell him for ten silver dollars. Wang buys him at a discount, half price., and names him "Doggie."
The kid turns out to be the ideal choice. She calls the old man "Granpa," and happy Wang feels that the child is his grandson. But after a series of events and episodes, all of them intelligently, colorfully and appealingly done, Doggie turns out to be a girl. Past his initial irritation and disappointment, Wang makes his peace with Doggie, a mutual affection keeps growing touchingly. Intelligent, fast-learning, able, devoted and charming she becomes an invaluable companion, assistant and part of the show.
Of course things cannot keeping coming up roses. Doggie accidentally set fire to the boat, feels guilty and vanishes. But she resurfaces, sad, hungry, unkempt. Which leads to a series of believable complications, a kind of domino theory that results in Wang being jailed and accused of crimes -- falsely, and by corrupt police authorities. We yearn for a happy ending and a reunion of the old man and the child -- and don't get disappointed. But it is all done with such realism and imagination that we are very far from feel-good movie clichés.
There is, from the film's start, a third major character, also a performer. Master Liang (a role held by a star of Chinese Opera) who plays female roles in opera. (That's where this art form and Shakespeare meet, since men play women). He is an immensely admired celebrity. Huge audiences attend over and over the operas he is in. Crowds mob him in the streets. Chauffeur-driven Liang is chic, wealthy, has a palatial home and fans among the rich, powerful and famous.
He is an admirer of Wang, whom he vainly tries to entice to the Opera, for sums that Wang has trouble imagining. But intelligently and with feeling, Liang accepts Wang's refusal. He also urges him to find a successor.
When Chang is facing execution, the coalition of Liang and Doggie save him. But not before Liang's initial efforts fail. That's when he states that actors (and artists) are adulated, "but don't really count"
This wonderful, splendidly acted movie has poignancy, seriousness as well as much humor.It is only lightly and discreetly political as it shows (in passing) the old days of haves and have-nots as well as the sexism which, presumably, is no longer part of today's China.
Above all it is a song of human warmth and dedication to art. Its camera work is beautiful, with striking colors --and colorfulness. The sets, a feast for the eye, include temples, gigantic statues carved in hillsides, perfectly lit interiors and exteriors, fascinating (and exotic to Western eyes) scenes of Opera performances. A fine musical score is divided into fine "European" style music (strings predominate) and lovely Chinese.sounds
The pristine print I saw has crystal-clear sound and subtitles (fewer than usual are needed) which are exceptionally large and easy to read.
KOM's maker is non-conformist Wu Tianming. Already a director, he was given the headship of a studio (Xian) in the early 1980s, nurtured new talent, and raised his studio's income from last to first place, even though some of the films he produced (Red Sorghum, etc.) infuriated conservative authorities.
At the time of the Tienanmen Square disaster (1989), he was visiting the United States. There, he strongly disapproved the Chinese Government's action. His criticism resulted in his staying, prudently, in this country for close to five years, during which he taught film and lectured in several unversities. He also opened a video store in Los Angeles. Wu is back home again.