Rediscovering ‘The King of Masks’ (China 1997 – 101 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - January 17, 2014
Rediscovering ‘The King of Masks’ (China 1997 – 101 mins)

The world is a cold place, but we can bring warmth to it

Utterly charming and totally irresistible, Chinese drama ‘The King of Masks’ is one of those rare movies, in that it is both moving and touching without getting stuck in any slushy sentiment.

In 1930’s poverty-stricken Sichuan Province, aging street magician Wang Bianlian worries that he has no male heir to pass on the ancient art of face-changing * to. He decides to purchase a young boy on the black market, someone who can learn his secrets. He buys a 7 year old orphan whom he names Doggie, unaware that the child is actually a girl. It’s not long Wang finds out, and knowing that girls are not allowed to perform in the Arts, Wang attempts to abandon the child. But the little girl is not about to let the old man desert her.

Simple and genuinely moving, the film was a huge crowd pleaser with both public and critics, winning a number of awards at various film festivals around the world. Famed performer Zhu Xu plays the lonely magician to perfection. An outstanding actor from Beijing’s People’s Artistic Theatre, Xu had over 40 years experience on both stage and screen. He portrays Wang with the right balance of strict tutor and kind-hearted father figure, and not without humour.

Director Tian-Ming Wu auditioned over 100 children for the part of Doggie, before opting for 8 year old Zhou Ren-ying. In real life Ren-ying had been a performer with the Xian Acrobatic Troupe since she was a toddler, and director Wu knew that she would be able to withstand the demands of filming. Her performance here is so natural and charming that it will melt even the coldest of hearts. The engaging scenes of Doggies acrobatic training on Wang’s riverboat, set to a beautiful musical score, and subsequent performing scenes are a joy to watch, and you become a genuinely enthralled part of the on-screen audience.

One of the greatest, life-affirming movies I have ever seen, ‘The King of Masks’ is both powerful and entertaining. A film for all ages, this compelling story about two lost souls in need of each other, is one of the most captivating studies of companionship ever captured on film.

* ‘Face-changing’ (or Biàn Lian), is an ancient art that has existed in China since the 18th Century, with the performer being able to continuously change around a dozen masks in one go. Although there are a few types of ‘mask-changing’, the most commonly one used in ‘The King of Masks’ is called the ‘Pulling Down’. This is where the actor can pull down a mask which has previously been hidden on top of his head, changing his face to red, green, blue or black to express happiness, hate, anger or sadness, respectively.


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