The King of Masks (1996)
Reviewed by: Waiguoren99 on 2002-02-03
Summary: One of my all - time favorites; a wonderful heart - touching drama.

HK rating I (equal to G or PG); mild violence. (Some scenes of a child in great peril may be upsetting to small children.) Drama.

Wang Bian-lian, "King of Face Changing" (Zhu Xu), an elderly street performer in 1930's Sichuan, is befriended by Lang Lian-sao (Zhang Zhigang), an immensely popular opera star/female impersonator. Lang, who is fascinated with what Wang does and wishes to add it to his opera troupe’s performances, is horrified to discover that Wang's art, known as "Changing Faces" for its seemingly magical quick - switching of beautifully painted skin - tight silk masks, can only be taught to a male heir and Wang has no family left. Lang convinces him to adopt an heir so that the art will not be lost when he dies. Wang goes to a slave market and buys an adorable 7-year-old, whom he names Gou-hua, "Doggie" (Zhao Renying) and adopts as his grandson.The two soon love each other deeply and the old man begins to teach the child his craft. But Doggie is not what he seems, and this discovery leads to desperate attempts by the child to regain the old man's love and make everything right.

Whenever I want to introduce someone to Chinese movies, this is the one I recommend. Its original title, BIAN LIAN, means "Changing Faces" and it is a far better title, much more evocative of the action, the characters, and the overall ambience of this film. Director Wu Tianming as head of the Xian Studio in the 80s was mentor to many of China's Fifth Wave directors including Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, and we can see here how valuable his guidance must have been. This wonderful script, in its tone somewhat reminiscent of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, is superbly and faultlessly directed with strength and delicacy. Wu pulls incredibly sensitive and convincing performances from his cast, especially the three principals. All are outstanding, but Zhao's portrayal of the child shows an exceptional ability which makes one wonder what she will be like as she develops further. The cinematography and scene-framing is gorgeous, as misty watercolor scenes alternate with scenes of earthy street life and cloisonne-like opera performances. Some critics have called this film "emotionally manipulative" and so it is -- that is, after all, the purpose of any film, to make you **feel**, and Wu plays on our emotions as if they are an orchestra and he is Toscanini. Fortunately, KING OF MASKS has been widely distributed on video and DVD in the U.S. and is available in many video rental stores. It is one of my all - time favorite films, and absolutely not to be missed! Highest recommendation.
Reviewer Score: 10