A modest but beautifully crafted tale of an elderly street performer and his adopted pupil in Republican China, “The King of Masks” is a confident return to the international scene by helmer Wu Tianming, godfather to the Fifth Generation of mainland Chinese directors. Charming without becoming over-saccharine, and championing such unfashionable screen virtues as gentleness and humanism, this lucidly directed pic should rack up festival exposure and specialist tube sales following its warm reception in the Berlinale’s Forum section.
As head of Xi’an Film Studio during the mid- and late ’80s, Wu nurtured the early careers of directors like Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Huang Jianxin before falling afoul of a conservative backlash. Based in California from 1989-94, during which time he made only one video work, Wu returned to China to direct the current item, extensively developed from a 1993 prize-winning script in Taiwan that was bought by Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros.
Set during an unspecified period that has the feel of the ’20s, the story centers on an aged traveling performer, Wang (Zhu Xu), who’s a master of the Sichuan opera technique of rapid-changing face masks. Abandoned by his wife 30 years ago and now accompanied only by a monkey, he is on the lookout for a young boy to whom to bequeath the secret of his art. He politely declines the invitation of a famous interpreter of female roles, Liang (Zhang Zhigang), to pass on his knowledge.
Buying a child, nicknamed “Doggie” (Zhou Renying), from a starving family, Wang finds his life taking on new meaning, and even pawns a treasured heirloom when Doggie falls sick. Soon after, however, he’s horrified to discover that the kid is actually a girl. Only after she begs to stay does Wang agree to train her as an acrobat; he’s adamant, though, that the mask technique can be taught only to a male.
When Doggie accidentally sets fire to Wang’s boat, she flees into town, rescuing the baby son of a wealthy family from some kidnappers and secretly depositing the sprig with Wang. Delighted to get a male “heir,” even though he has no idea who the donor is, the old man is later charged with kidnapping and sentenced to death. Doggie, however, sets out to clear his name.
Like Wu’s 1983 movie “Uncharted River,” this is a character-driven piece, and goes down far more easily than his last picture, the gritty village drama “Old Well” (1987). It’s a simple tale, not without humor, that is mostly staged with economy and almost totally relies on the interface between the two very different leads. Zhu brings a resilience and dignity to the part of the proud old man, preventing the character from becoming maudlin, while Zhou, as the young girl, exhibits a feisty spirit, especially in the street performance scenes, that’s both tough and funny.
Zhao Jiping’s quietly wistful music is a bonus throughout, and tech credits are shapely.