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Wang Bianlian is an aging street performer known as the King of Mask for his mastery of Sichuan Change Art in a true story. His wife left him with and infant son over 30 years ago. The son died from illness at age 10. This left Wang a melancholy loner aching for a male descendent to learn his rare and dying art. A famous master performer of the Sichuan Opera offers to bring him into his act, thus giving Wang fame and possible fortune, but Wang opts for staying the simple street performer. Then, one night after a performance he is sold a young boy by a slave trader posing as the boy's parent. "Grandpa" finds new joy in life as he plans to teach "Doggie" (an affectionate term often used for young children in China) his art. All is well until Doggie is found out to really be a girl. Written by
Steve Uptegraft <email@example.com>
"The world is a cold place, but we can bring warmth to it." - Master Liang
Predictable, manipulative, and emotional? Yes, but if you still have a heart that beats, you may find Wu Tianming's 1996 film, The King of Masks, to be a moving and memorable experience. Beautifully photographed in gorgeous color, the film tells the story of Wang Bianlian, a lonely old street performer with rotting teeth who lives in a houseboat on the Yangtze and is a master of the art of "face-changing". This involves putting on and taking off silk masks in the flash of a second so that the process is almost invisible to the eye. In the highly patriarchal society of the 1930s, this sort of magic could only be performed by a male; therefore, Wang, abandoned by his wife and children many years ago, must now find a boy to carry on his tradition or it will die forever.
When a famous transgender opera performer called the Living Bodhisattva, Master Liang (Zhao Zhigang) offers him a job in his acting troupe, Wang declines and decides he must find his own "grandson" to pass down his gift to. Thinking "she" is a "he", Wang goes to a slave auction and buys a sad eyed little eight-year old for $5 in a dark alley. He calls her "Doggie" (Zhou Renying) and takes his new companion to live with him and his beautiful monkey "General" (who comes close to stealing the show). When Wang accidentally discovers that Doggie is a girl, he is ready to cast her out, but having been sold seven times previously, she begs to stay.
Xu Zhu, an outstanding actor in the Beijing People's Artistic Theater, portrays Wang as a man still operating within the rules of society but one who is full of kindness and good humor. Out of compassion, the old man agrees not to teach Doggie the art of masking but allows her to stay as a servant and to learn acrobatics to perform in his act. Both social outcasts, the two form a friendship based on mutual need and longing. Cutting to scenes from a Chinese opera, Attaining Nirvana, attended by Wang and Doggie, in which a princess, upset over her father's suffering, vows to find and comfort him in the underworld. Sacrificing herself, she becomes a Bodhisattva. This mirrors the emotional pivot of the film when Doggie, now lovingly devoted to "Grandpa" (whom she must call "Boss"), is willing to sacrifice herself to help him when he is in serious trouble with the authorities. King of Masks is a work of warmth and tenderness, yet is also an indictment of the emotional harm caused by gender preference in society. Zhou (Doggie) is so real in expressing her feelings of being unloved and unworthy that her performance is truly radiant (she is an orphan who performs acrobatics in real life).
One of the most poignant moments in the film occurs when Doggie picks up a statue of a Bodhisattva and asks Wang, "you worship her, don't you?" Tianming, who returned to China in 1995 after a prolonged absence, stated: "I wanted to make this film", he said, "because I fear that society is forgetting our Chinese traditions. Those traditions emphasized the value of morality and ethics, proper manners, a sense of honor, and taking care of each other Through this story of an old man and a child in a world full of struggle and suffering, I wanted to express the importance of love." He has succeeded far beyond his expectations and, in the process, has elevated us to a new level of understanding and compassion.
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