A Glimpse Into a Lost World
In 1930s China, street performers, despite a long history, were both admired and reviled—considered pleasant distractions but, ultimately, scorned as pariahs. They shared this ambiguous love-hate relationship with another, somewhat larger segment of society: women. For poor families especially, girls represented only a burden—another mouth to feed, another body to clothe.
With its focus on impoverished street life, the harsh abuse of children, and crafty and unique means of survival, Wu Tianming’s The King of Masks often feels like Dickens Chinese-style—an appealing, sentimental tale, also reminiscent of old Hollywood at its manipulative best. But for all its calculation (unusual in Chinese film fare that makes it to the States) and its sense of inevitability, Masks is a wonderful glimpse into a lost world, filled with both tragedy and delight.
Wang (Zhu Xu), a solitary old man and venerated street performer, wanders through the ancient stone streets of the Sichuan province with his box of delicate handmade masks and General, his loyal pet monkey, for companionship. Wang’s specialty is the ancient and secret art of face-changing, a breathlessly swift and nimble method of storytelling through masks in which the hand is truly quicker than the eye. A sincere admirer of Wang is Master Liang Sao Lang (Zhao Zhigang), revered as by the people as the number-one female impersonator and operatic performer. Liang laments Wang’s solitude, for it means Wang’s art will die with him, and he encourages the old man to find himself an heir.
Wang visits the black market where children, almost exclusively girls, are sold for pittance by their impoverished families, only half believing he’ll be able to find himself a “son.” To his incredulity he discovers an angelic little 8-year-old, Doggie (Zhou Ren-ying), who endears himself to Wang by beseechingly calling him “Grandpa.” Wang buys the child and dotes upon him, serene in his happiness and the security of having a male to whom to transfer his ancient secrets—until he discovers, by accident and to his horror, that Doggie is a girl. Despite his disappointment and deep embarrassment, Wang finds it hard to abandon Doggie. Although all thoughts of passing along the secrets of the masks are abandoned, he grudgingly makes Doggie a sideshow to his act. For all her ability and shrewdness, however, Doggie remains a child, and she triggers a series of disasters that try both the old man and the little girl.
Wei Minglung’s screenplay has few real surprises, but it weaves an effective story highlighted by Wu’s careful camera work, which emphasizes the solitude and loneliness of Wang wandering the streets while Liang is borne aloft by his admiring throng. The atmosphere provided by the location wonderfully transports viewers into an era when warlords and patriarchy dominated, and where even prosperous children frequently met with sudden disaster.
One element that proves more of a distraction than a complement to the story is a kind of teasing coyness over Liang’s gender (and sexual preference). Liang laments being “half a woman” (as opposed to half a man), and a sense of expectation grows around the inevitable encounter between Liang and Doggie—which, when it comes, comes as something of a letdown. It never seems to have occurred to either Wei or Wu that following through on this line might have added several levels of intricacy to the already disturbing and rampant misogyny and fear of outsiders depicted in the film. (Of course, it’s also possible that something was lost in the translation.) Several hints that there is more to Liang than meets the eye go nowhere, and finally Liang proves to be only what he seems: a skilled impersonator.
In a tale of disguise and alienation, not developing the possibilities that reside in Liang’s character seems an unfortunate omission. Perhaps it’s a bit much to expect more social resonance from this sincerely captivating tale, but its inevitable conclusion brushes aside the dilemmas of sexism and classism it spends a good amount of time detailing. But despite this gap, and a gratingly melodramatic and tidy wrap-up, The King of Masks justifies its numerous film-festival honors with its beautiful detail and homage to the tradition—and secrets—of the artist.