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The King of Masks (1996)

Cast: Zhu Xu, Zhu Xu, Zhou Ren-Ying, more...
Director: Wu Tianming, Wu Tianming
    see all cast/crew...
Rating: Not Rated
Studio: Columbia TriStar
Genre: Drama, Foreign, Costume Drama/Period Piece, Hong Kong, China
Languages: Mandarin
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
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The King of Masks (1996)
This tender Chinese tale of an aged street performer who begins teaching a young child is filled with warm humanity but not imbued with undue sentiment. It is set about seventy years in the past and centers on elderly Wang Bian Lian, who travels the street performing with his pet monkey. Just looking at him it would be hard to tell that he is a master of the rapid changing face masks technique that characterizes Sichuan opera. He came to the streets thirty years before, after his wife abandoned him, and now he seeks to pass on his technique to a young boy. Liang, a well-known actor specializing in female roles wants to learn the skill, but Wang politely refuses to teach him. Wang finally gets his candidate when he buys "Doggie," a young child from a starving family. Doggie's presence adds renewed zest to Wang's life. One day the child falls ill and Wang sells one of his few priceless heirlooms to save him. This leads him to learn that Doggie is not a 'he' at all. Wang still cares, but he is heartbroken for only a boy can learn the face-changing skill. Doggie begs him to let her stay and to teach her to be an acrobat. He agrees to this and continues looking for a boy. One day, Doggie accidentally burns up Wang's boat. Horrified, she flees into the city only to secretly return later with a baby that she had rescued from kidnappers. Wang, not knowing who bestowed the gift of the child, is delighted. Unfortuantely the child's wealthy parents learn that he has it. Wang is arrested and sentenced to death. Fortunately, Doggie is determined to save him. ~ Sandra Brennan, All Movie Guide

The King of Masks (Widescreen Version) (1996)

GreenCine Member Ratings

The King of Masks (1996)
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7.34 (89 votes)
The King of Masks (Widescreen Version) (1996)
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6.95 (22 votes)

GreenCine Member Reviews

This wonderful film, superbly and faultlessly directed, is one of my all - time favorites. by Waiguoren99 April 3, 2003 - 11:27 PM PST
5 out of 5 members found this review helpful
Whenever I want to introduce someone to Chinese movies, this is the one I recommend. Its original title, Bian Lian, means "Face Changing", and that is a far better title, much more evocative of the action, the characters, and the overall ambiance of this film. Director Wu Tianming as head of the Xian Studio in the 1980s 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 film, which in both its tone and its story of a child dealing with terrible injustice in her society is more than 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'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 river scenes alternate with scenes of earthy street life and cloisonné - 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. It is one of my all - time favorite films, and absolutely not to be missed! Highest possible recommendation.

Charming, touching sleeper by underdog May 30, 2002 - 2:06 PM PDT
5 out of 5 members found this review helpful
Fascinating even within its simple context, this film is an almost perfect example of storytelling. An aged street performer in 1930s Sichuan realizes he has no heir to pass on his ancient tradition (and secrets)... so he purchases a son on the black market, only to find more than he bargained for. An extremely moving film - fascinating for its depiction of so many aspects of China unknown by Western audiences: mask-shifting performance, opera, the importance of gender, abject poverty and famine in the early 20th century, and Confucian values. All that aside, it's a sad, funny, and winning little masterpiece. (One complaint about the DVD - why no widescreen version?)

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