‘King of Masks’ reveals China of the 1930s

COURTESY PHOTO | 'King of Masks' will the featured Movies at the Library

COURTESY PHOTO | ‘King of Masks’ will the featured film at Movies at the Library on Tuesday, April 15..

Movies at the Library had planned to screen “King of Masks” in January; winter weather intervened. But it’s so gentle and charming a film that we wanted to treat our viewers to another chance. “King of Masks” is now scheduled to be shown on the lower level of the library at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 15.

The film is set in Provincial Sichuan, China, 1930. It tells the story of a talented though aging street performer, Wang (Zhu Xu), who has no heir and longs to pass on the secrets of his art before he dies.

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 to do something, anything to preserve his art for coming generations.

At Wang’s 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 8-year-old (Zhou Ren-ying) catches his attention. 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 and thus unsuitable to carry on Wang’s art. 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 and was 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 4-year-old boy, who was being held by child-traders. He can be the heir Wang so longs 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 the chief of the state-run Xian Film Studios, where he became known as the godfather of contemporary Chinese cinema. Among those whose careers he helped shepherd to world-wide renown are Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern”) and Chen Kaige (“Farewell My Concubine”).

Perhaps because he spent several years in the U.S., Wu Tianming’s 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.”

“King of Masks” won several Golden Roosters (the Chinese equivalent of Oscars) when it was released in 1997. It runs 101 minutes, is in Mandarin with English subtitles, and is well worth seeing.

Please join us at the library April 15. Bring a pal. This one will help us all forget about the IRS.