The King of Masks

The title character in Wu Tianming's 1995 tearjerker is a grandfatherly street performer in rural Szechwan with a cast of colorful masks he puts on and off in a wink. He treasures his independence, rejecting offers to join a traveling opera company, but despairs at not being able to pass his secret art on to a male heir. When he buys what he thinks is a boy at a village market, the boy turns out to be a girl; but after a series of encounters with corrupt cops and devious bureaucrats, the two forge a properly Confucian bond of parental guidance and filial obedience. Wu—who headed the Xian Film Studio, where he was mentor to many Fifth Generation filmmakers, and who fled to California after the Tiananmen massacre—no doubt sees something of himself in this lonesome curmudgeon who fiercely protects his artistry and freedom. Yet Wu offers a hopeful message—that compassion is still kindling in his homeland, challenging oppressive old customs and pointing to a true reconfiguration of the social order. The pathos in his storytelling might be overwrought, but the sincerity is heartfelt and the emotional relationship between the king (a stoic yet empathic performance by Zhu Xu) and his adopted daughter is genuinely affecting. 101 min.

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