Master Wang has a different face for every day and every town. This aged wanderer, the title character of the new Chinese movie The King of Masks, lives as an itinerant street performer. Wearing an odd piece of headgear, Wang (Zhu Xu) can whip a colorful demon-style silk mask across his face within seconds, and then change that visage in an instant. But this mutable play face is just a meal ticket for the old man, who remains the same lonely traveler underneath the masks. Long since abandoned by his wife, and still grieving his dead son, Wang pines for a grandson who might learn his trade. He won't pass on the "face-changing" secrets to anyone else, not even a granddaughter.
Wang is understandably excited when he passes a dim alley where people sell, or even give away, their children. Most of them are girls, who are considered nearly useless in 1930s China, but one kid with a bright face who calls him "Grandpa" catches Wang's attention. Wang buys the child and dubs him "Doggie." As the pair grows closer, Wang is set to start giving lessons in face-changing. Then, in a tight situation, Wang turns to Doggie to provide a boy's urine for a folk medicine, and his young charge (played by Zhou Ren-ying) has to confess he's a she. This is a worse blow to Wang than if his new grandchild had died. Whatever will he do with a girl?
The King of Masks manages to present these dim sexual politics without dulling the viewer's empathy for either Wang or Doggie. In part, this happens thanks to strong performances. Zhu plays craggy old Wang as a kind of weary but feisty figure. The actor performs the face-changing trick in several prolonged close-ups that serve as proof of his character's arts. And Zhou brings a spunk to the role of Doggie that recalls inspired performances by Shirley Temple, Mary Pickford, or Jodie Foster from their preteen primes. So, too, Wang's traditional notions of gender receive a modern twist in the person of his one prestigious admirer, the much younger Master Liang (Zhao Zhigang), who is a popular female impersonator in traditional Chinese opera. As opposed to the histrionics over this profession in Farewell My Concubine, Liang is simply proud of his craft and aware of his separation from others.
Most of the characters in The King of Masks defy social conventions, but Wang and Doggie literally stand outside the mainstream, as they float from one small river town to another, with only the fog and a trained monkey for company. The imperfect solution to loneliness that the female Doggie represents for Wang fails, though, after she causes an accident on the boat. Banished, then kidnapped, Doggie and the movie seem headed for a mawkish, Dickensian finish. Only the sure hand of director Wu Tianming prevents this fate, as he applies the same tempered approach to melodrama that is typical of recent Chinese film history. Wu served as producer for some of the so-called Fifth Generation school of directors, such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, who are responsible for such rich melodramas as Red Sorghum, Yellow Earth, and Gong Li epics like Raise the Red Lantern.
Wu's return to filmmaking at this level deserves notice. He left his profession and his country after his opinions on the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre made life in China impossible. He landed in California, where he taught film and opened a video store. Now restored to his homeland, Wu is once again involved in Chinese cinema. Like the younger filmmakers he nurtured--and much like old Wang himself--Wu has used the veil of an involving tale to shroud a carefully shaped social critique. Outsiders have a place, the film suggests, rootless as they may feel, and their function can be to bring wonders to an unprepared public. In an apt metaphor that Wu no doubt appreciates, changing one's public face can help one survive a society's shifts in ideology.
The King of Masks starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema.
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