What to eat while watching: Chinese takeout.
Thank you, dear reader, for indulging my haiku. I know it might read as sloppy to emote over-willingly while rating a movie; and I know that the poetry form, being Japanese, not Chinese, has the jangle of Western inappropriateness--yet rare are the films that spark in us a sense of human wonder, and I hope you will bear with me if I've been overtaken by the simple beauty of this film. Let me say now that I recommend it for all those whose hearts need a massage.
If there is a flaw in this beautiful and touching film, it's too much sentimentality. One can only hear a child cry "Yeya!" (Grandpa!) so many times before feeling a little squeamish. And the young actress does push that boundary, I'm afraid. But given the circumstances of the story--combined with the power of this acting--I can understand and sympathize no matter how emotional it gets.
The King of Masks is the tale of a street performer in The Szechuan Province of the 1930s. He is an old master of mask opera: using sleight of hand, he whisks masks on and off, creating a startling and beautiful effect. His rare talent catches the attention of Master Liang, The Living Bhodisatva, an opera actor and female impersonator with a great deal of clout. They form a friendship and Master Liang advises that the old man find an apprentice so his art does not die out. No wish is dearer to the old man's heart.
Tragically, the King of Masks' only son died in childhood, and the tradition of his family allows him to pass the mask skill on to a boy only. The old man is so desperate for an apprentice--and a son--that he deals with the black market slavers who sell children. Mostly, it's girls, and we see this culture's disturbing devaluation of girl children. The old master shares this disregard and considers his cause doomed, when at last a young boy appears who is willing (and affordable).
Buying himself this grandson, who he nicknames "Doggie," the old master begins to train him to learn acrobatics and mask transformations. But very soon, the truth comes out: this is no boy.
Now, please don't get upset at me. We're not talking about The Crying Game here, and I'm not spoiling anything. The illusion lasts for a very short time in the movie, and you, friend, are an astute enough viewer to have caught on to the deception immediately. The old master is only fooled because his desperate hopes have made him so blind.
When he finds out the his "grandson" has no "little teapot spout," his hopes are dashed, and the relationship between man and girl changes drastically. She is now to see him as her boss, her owner--not her grandfather. Trying only to stay in his favor and to win back the kindness the old man showed her when he thought she was a boy, young Doggie gets the old man in trouble again and again.
We get the sense that tragedy is a way of life in Szechuan. One tribulation after another comes down on the heads of the King of Masks and his would-be ward. Other citizens are deprived of their children. People are wounded, mistakenly arrested, robbed. It's a harsh and cold city and poverty rages.
The bond that forms between man and girl is powerful to the viewer because it blossoms from such a desolate landscape. Many are the forces that conspire to remove wealth, health, and freedom from the hapless humans of China. Governors and their soldiers seem to be at least as much of a threat to the commoner as are criminals and murderers. Then there is the weather to deal with--all while contending with hunger and the relentless drive to find something to eat.
If you can predict the ending, you can have a gold star--it's easy and they're cheap. But getting to the ending will engross you and affect your heart (if you are so inclined).
There is plenty to look at in this film, shot from the lowlands. You don't get a lot of soaring shots over China, but between the shrine where the old man prays and the palace of the opera star, there are many large-scale visual treats. On the smaller scale, you see the wild masks, the trained baboon, bits of classical opera, and many faces young and old. In all, it's a treat for the eyes.
And the acting is extraordinary. These actors play their roles and their interactions brilliantly. Even the tiny boy, no more than five years old, is a more credible actor than John Cusack and other huge box-office draws here in the U.S.
The King of Masks was highly recommended to me by Diane R. and I highly recommend it to you.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.