Provincial Sichuan, China. 1930: A talented street performer works his magic, switching facial masks with lightning speed to the amazement and amusement of admiring crowds. But the artist doesn’t share in the pleasure he provides to his audiences because he is aging and alone. He pines for a son to whom he can pass on the secrets of his art.
The street performer is Wang (Zhu Xu), and the movie — based on a true story — is “The King of Masks.” It won several Golden Roosters (the Chinese equivalent of Oscars) when it was released in 1997. It will be shown at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, January 21 at the library.
Wang plies his craft by travelling from town to town on his little houseboat. Among those he enchants is Master Liang (Zhao Zhigang), a famous female impersonator from the Sichuan opera, who offers Wang the chance to join his troupe. Liang holds out the promise of wealth and widespread fame. But Wang, set in his ways, opts to honor the tradition of being a street performer. The opera star begs Wang not to let his craft be lost by dying without an heir.
At his next stop along the river, there is a baby market where desperately impoverished parents offer their hungry children for sale. Wang passes through the market and is about to leave when a scrawny eight-year-old (Zhou Ren-ying) calls out to him. The seller holds the child on a leash. Wang pays $10 for the urchin, and the two return to Wang’s boat. Wang is thrilled to have someone to whom he can now teach the ancient art of silk masks and the skill of changing visages in a trice.
He calls the child “Doggie,” a term of affection. Wang is “Boss.” They’re a happy pair — until Wang discovers that Doggie is not a boy but a girl. He wants to send her away, but Doggie convinces him that she pretended to be a boy because she’d already been sold seven times before Wang came along; she was also beaten by her previous owner.
Wang relents and trains Doggie as an acrobat. He even takes her to an opera performance in which Master Liang plays a princess who hangs from the ceiling by a rope, which she threatens to cut if the officials beneath her don’t stop the execution of her father, the emperor.
Some days later, Doggie repays Wang’s kindness by bringing him a four-year-old boy who was being held by child-traders. He can be the heir Wang longed for. She believes the boy to be an orphan. but he has actually been kidnapped from a wealthy family. Wang is accused of robbery and sentenced to death.
It falls to Doggie to rescue him from such a dire fate.
“The King of Masks” was directed by Wu Tianming, once a studio head in China.
Perhaps because he spent several years in the United States, his cinematic sensibilities translate into a truly beautiful international film. The river life, the costumes and customs it conveys, make the film seem a fable. As Janet Maslin noted in her New York Times review, “The movie is foremost about kindness, and so warm and understated that that’s enough.”
This gently told tale runs 101 minutes; it is in Mandarin with English subtitles, and is well worth seeing.
Please join us on January 21. Bring a pal. We’ll all enjoy this one.