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King of Masks

Not rated, 101 min. Directed by Wu Tian-Ming. Starring Zhao Zhigang, Zhang Riuyang, Zhou Ren-Ying, Zhu Xu.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 11, 1999

Celebrated Chinese filmmaker Wu Tian-Ming (The Old Well) returns after a 10-year hiatus with an affecting period piece told in the gentle manner of a fable and explores the mysteries of love. Elderly street performer Master Wang (Zhu) is known affectionately in his Sichuan province as The King of Masks. Plying the Yangtze on his cramped little skiff, he puts in at various towns and villages and makes his way to the marketplace where he stages impromptu performances of his art, that of “face-changing,” a sly, complex, wholly beautiful bit of theatricality involving colorful painted paper masks that he whisks on and off his face with sublime precision. Alas, with his wife gone and his only male heir dead of illness, he has no one to whom he can pass on this ancient family tradition, and so to rectify the problem, he one day purchases a young child (Zhou) in a nameless village square. All is well until the old man discovers, much to his chagrin and horror, that this potential heir he took to be a boy is, in fact, a girl, devoid of the necessary “tea-cup spout.” Horrified at his costly error, he nonetheless agrees to keep her on as a cook and general gopher until such time as he can rectify the situation. When “Doggie” (as he affectionately calls her) is kidnapped by a band of street thugs, presumably intent on selling the child into slavery, Wang is inconsolable, though when she returns with a real male heir in tow, he finds his fortunes looking up. And then things go awry once again. The many twists and turns that fate can take is Tian-Ming's driving force here, and he layers them out before us with surprising ease and agility. Like Master Wang's artistry with his masks, the old man's need for love and affection is a solitary thing until his emotions, like the flimsy bamboo fans he utilizes in his act, are opened wide. Apart from his admittedly familiar storyline -- that of the orphaned child and the crusty-yet-lovable old man savaged and saved by unexpected love -- Tian-Ming's stunningly gorgeous direction and the assured performances he draws from his actors make for a powerfully redemptive tale. Slinking camerawork reveals the alleyways and snaking trails of turn-of-the-century China, where child slavery was commonplace as starving families often looked to their young daughters less as a member of the group than as a potential meal ticket. Throughout all the doomy ambivalence of the tale, Zhu and newcomer/Peking Opera acrobat Zhou strike sentimental fire onscreen, rekindling each other's dormant emotions and proving once again that love conquers all (even if it's just a simple fable).
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