While Hong Kong movies have been invading Hollywood through the success of Jackie Chan, John Woo and others, mainland Chinese cinema has invaded the "classier" neighborhoods of the film industry. The latest contender is The King of Masks, an affecting melodrama from veteran Chinese filmmaker Wu Tianming.
The title refers to Wang (Zhu Xu), an aging street performer who wanders the villages of 1930s China displaying the dying art of "change-face opera," a sort of quick-change magic act in which a series of masks magically appear on his face seemingly instantaneously and independently.
Wang is the last practitioner of this skill, a family secret. But his only child has long since died. A Chinese opera star named Liang (Zhao Zhigang) offers Wang a place in his traveling show, but Wang suspects that Liang is more interested in observing him in order to steal his secret technique. When Wang declines the offer, the younger man politely reminds him that he isn't getting any younger. If he doesn't pass his technique along, it will die with him.
Taking this to heart, Wang visits a neighborhood where desperately impoverished parents sell children in order to buy food for their remaining offspring. He is charmed into buying Doggie (Zhou Ren-Ying), an adorable seven-year-old boy with whom he quickly forms a deep emotional bond. It seems as though all his problems have been solved -- until he discovers that Doggie is actually a girl, essentially less than worthless in that time and place.
Wang allows her to stay as his servant, training her in opera skills without, however, telling his secrets to her. Her natural curiosity leads to a series of catastrophes that bring the authorities down on Wang. Her resourcefulness and devotion are his only hope.
That director Wu is getting a relatively wide American release at this stage of his career is ironic: He is older and more experienced than directors such as Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) and Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), who have become art-house staples. In fact, in the politically volatile world of Chinese cinema, Wu stands as one of the pioneers who enabled younger colleagues to break away from the ideological restrictions of post-Revolutionary mainland art.
Born in 1939, Wu started his film career in the early 1960s; he was accepted as part of the fifth class of the Beijing Film Academy. But then came the Cultural Revolution, which shut down the Academy and much of the film industry. After the Cultural Revolution ended, Wu was able to co-direct his first film, Reverberations of Life, in 1979; in 1983 he made his solo directing debut with River Without Buoys, which won the sort of international attention (and awards) that had evaded Chinese films for decades.
Wu was then made head of Xi'an Studios, where he opened the doors to a new crop of filmmakers. Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite) and Huang Jianxin (The Wooden Man's Bride) were among those he gave a start.
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But politics again derailed his career. Wu was in the U.S. as a visiting scholar during the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 and chose to remain until 1994. Unable to support his family on lecturing fees, he opened a video store in one of Los Angeles's Chinese-American suburbs. The King of Masks was his first production after his return to China.
The return is triumphant. Wu has fashioned an accessible, heartwarming tearjerker. He transplants the classic Silas Marner shtick -- child warms heart of crusty old man -- to the brutal milieu of China between the fall of the Empire and the Revolution.
While The King of Masks is much more sentimental than The Old Well, it also has an apparent political subtext. How can one not see Wu himself in the story of an aging artist whose difficult mission is to pass on his art to a younger generation? An artist who is repeatedly beaten down by bad luck and worse timing? It may not have been his stated intent, but his experience -- however much transformed -- certainly contributes to making The King of Masks such a wrenching emotional experience.
The King of Masks.
Directed by Wu Tianming. Screenplay by Wei Minglung. With Zhu Xu,
Zhou Ren-Ying, Zhang Riuyang and Zhao Zhigang.