The King Of Masks (1996)

Directed by: Wu Tian-Ming
Written by: Ngai Ming-Lun
Producers: Mona Fong & Hon Pau-Chu
Starring: Zhu Xu, Chow Yam-Ying, Chiu Chi-Gong & Cheung Shui-Yeung


One of the rare occurrences since the mid 80s where Shaw Brothers were active in any form (this time as distributor), the 1996 for all intents and purposes Mainland Chinese movie directed by Wu Tian-Ming (Old Well, starring legendary director Zhang Yimou of Hero-fame) portrays the art of Bian lian. Part of a particular type of Chinese opera, the distinctive feature of the art is the brightly colored masks that changes at rapid speeds. Change, adapting to it, new ways and how much of your soul you pour into hope are certainly tangents in Wu's award winning film but despite complexity, it carries with it the very frank, NON-complex Mainland cinema way of dealing with drama and high emotions. It's not point and shoot but at times it feels like it and you get jealous of such fine craft and control. The King Of Masks is nothing short of a universal masterpiece.

Wang (Zhu Xu), known as the street performer "The King Of Masks" doesn't have a goal of obtaining riches but instead the most important one is to be able to teach his art of Bian lian to someone else. Old tradition states it must be a boy so Wang buys a small child he names Doggie (Chow Yam-Ying) and starts both rigorous training and a warm relationship. It turns out though that Doggie is a girl and it's the start of Wang's world spiraling out of control. Notions of a heartbreaking fate begins to rear its head...

You apply the following to both Wang's trade and director Wu Tian-Ming's and that is the ability and necessary skill to command a crowd. Via a very straightforward, universal simplicity, Wu gets touching movie magic and Wang brings presence and an audience-awe to his street performing. It's about more respect than rewards seemingly for Wang and with the early presence of Zhu Xu in the lead, you get the evidence of perfect casting. With such an expressive face, Wu's gets incredible mileage out of the actor that nails the humble, lowly, loyal, focused and dedicated nature to Wang. He's content with his place in the world, clearly not suffering but much is on the line in terms of finding his replacement and the movie is set during a time where he decides to pursue it. No elaborate setups as such of this plot is needed nor of the time the movie is set IN. Even the how's and why's about all the children being sold need no exposition in Wu's hands to get us through it (we guess families need money but we later learn a flood has affected the area). This makes The King Of Masks take on an aura of bringing only the needed beats. It's not a freight train of a movie but one that just seems to nail the essence of each scene. No more, no less and without being pretentious or taking dialogue into complex areas, Wu Tian-Ming gets across his emotional story.

What's refreshing is how Wang treats Doggie really well. Despite launching into training, this is a tender grandfather (not father) like relationship and it's this warm choice that makes sense for the movie. Only select stern tangents are needed as that is clearly the reasoning of Wang who's formed his ways as a teacher into something very constructive. He does have a positive outloook on life and as many of us, is colored and shaped by every conceivable experience in life (good or bad) but it's a very inspiring character creation. Despite the reveal that Doggie is a girl, Wang settles for her being an assistant and training her in acrobatics to support his act. It's important this kindness and warmth exists where it does in the film because when the world starts conspiring against the two, it's naturally a tougher watch.

Bringing in famous female impersonator within the Chinese opera, Master Liang (Chiu Chi-Gong), Wu closes his triangle of warmth, dedication and sincerity. Again the incredible simplicity of director Wu's work doesn't mean less of a stunning film as it's high visual art but not visual art allowed to dominate the story. Because at heart, The King Of Masks succeeds as a piece anyone can recognize. It may deal in a uniquely Chinese art but the story of a friendship and set decisions, emotions stirred within our "King Of Masks" will take a huge sprint into the hearts of viewers everywhere. THAT is unique.

The DVD (Mei Ah):

Shortened for its international release, the Mei Ah dvd presents the movie uncut.

Video: 1.69:1 non-anamorphic widescreen.

Audio: Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0

Subitles: Imbedded English/Chinese.

Extras: Mei Ah's Databank.


reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson