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The Boston Phoenix Child's Play

The King of Masks lays its heart bare

By Peter Keough

JUNE 7, 1999: 

Directed by Wu Tianming. Written by Wei Minglung. With Zhu Xu, Zhou Ren-ying, Zhang Riuyang, and Zhao Zhigang. A Samuel Goldwyn Films release. At the Kendall Square.

Hollywood has cornered the market on computer-generated images of aliens and insects meant to appeal to the child within us all. Asian movies, at least lately, offer the kids themselves. Add to the beleaguered waifs of Xiu Xiu and Three Seasons the plucky ragamuffin of Chinese director Wu Tianming's The King of Masks. Unapologetically sentimental, Masks makes no effort to disguise its simple emotional appeal and limpid manipulativeness. Instead, its visual beauty, precise performances, and metaphoric suggestiveness elevate the tearjerking into the illusion, at times, of grandeur.

Set in a 1930s China that, except for the occasional uniform and reference to war, could well be a galaxy far, far away, this is the tale of old Wang (Zhu Xu), an itinerant mountebank whose skill is face changing, the rapid donning of garish masks. He's first glimpsed as a dab of yellow -- his trademark parasol -- emerging from the mists as he disembarks from his skiff and wanders into town, monkey in hand (a spry, melancholy ape in one of the year's best animal performances), to put on his show in the main square.

It's not much by today's special-effects standards -- a half-dozen or so painted silk masks whipped on and off in a flurry of bravado, but it delights the crowd consisting of rich and poor, children and adults, and Wang's deferrent patter even softens the heart of a gruff soldier who demands to know how it's done. Neither does Wang kow-tow to Master Liang (Zhao Zhigang), a superstar transvestite performer in the Chinese Opera who, in lieu of learning the old man's trade, invites him to join his troupe. But Wang's profession traditionally is a solitary one, and the secret of face changing is something that can be passed on only to his male heir. His sorrow is that his son died as a child, and his wife tired of him and left long ago.

So Wang decides to adopt, purchasing a boy from the benighted parents -- and occasional kidnappers -- who offer children for sale on the streets. Plenty of girls are available, since they have little value in these supremely patriarchal times, but Wang needs a son and pays market value to a dubious ruffian for little Doggie (Zhou Ren-ying), a delightful and very well behaved urchin with a gift for acrobatics. Old man, child, and monkey bond briefly, sailing the river in his boat, until an accident with Freudian implications intervenes. A prankster causes Wang to cut his leg as he's showing off his expertise with a knife, and when he orders Doggie to pee on a rag as a disinfectant (a plot device unlikely to be seen in any Hollywood movie), the tearful child admits he's a girl.

Of course they are eventually reconciled, though not before an attempted lachrymose parting at dockside with memorable emoting from the monkey. The crusty old macho pig Wang begrudgingly begins to respect his charge for her athletic skills, back-scratching ability, and dogged devotion. Nonetheless, he refuses to initiate her into the face-changing skills, and Doggie's efforts first to learn the craft on the sly and later to fulfill the old man's wish for a male heir backfire disastrously.

It's meat-and-potatoes melodrama with style, the kind of clean-old-man/cute-child formulation that, as Pauline Kael has pointed out, is a sure thing in foreign films. Especially here, where it's pulled off with such restraint and tasteful aplomb by the old trouper Wu, and with a monkey and a quasi-feminist subtext tossed in for good measure. As much as one tries to resist, little Doggie's tears at the riverside and old Wang's general mien of long-suffering resignation evoke pathos, particularly given the director's touches of earthy humor and his elegant eye.

More subtle and poignant, though, is the film's reflexivity. Like Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine, Masks is partly an allegory about film itself, its power and fate in a world dominated by mindless tyrannies and blind historical processes. Like his hero, the director Wu has also worn many masks. The head of the Chinese studio that gave a start to the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers (superstars like Zhang Yimou and Chen), Wu began a five-year sojourn in the US in 1989 after Tiananmen Square, supporting himself with academic work and by running a video store. He has since returned to his homeland, and Masks is his first film in more than a decade. Like the fur-coated but rueful opera star of Masks, Wu knows well that artists don't count for much in society. It remains to be seen whether, like his heroine Doggie, they can nonetheless be a force for change.


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