What You Need To Know:
Strong Buddhist worldview where females are disparaged & including several depictions of Buddhist worship & strong moral elements of love & self-sacrifice; 11 obscenities & several instances of man calling girl "stupid"; mild violence including implied child beating, threats of beating, girl pulled by ear, girl falls from roof, & man shoots man with slingshot; no sex but a man cross-dresses as a woman for a stage performance; brief image of full boy nudity while urinating; alcohol use; smoking; and, strong miscellaneous immorality including stealing (which is rebuked), child selling, implied kidnapping, unjust treatment by police & armed officials, & scary scene of girl setting boat accidentally on fire.
Like the recent Martin Scorsese movie, KUNDUN, THE KING OF MASKS strives for nobility and morality but primarily champions its Buddhist worldview. This incongruity will probably contribute to its inaccessibility and lack of support from the vast majority of theologically savvy American people despite winning more than 25 honors from film festivals around the world.
Colorful, tender, primarily sad, this movie features the lost Chinese street art of changing your face to look like different masks.
It is the 1930s in the Sichuan province. Old man Wang (Zhu Xu) is a gifted street performer who can change faces in the blink of an eye. While the intricate play of masks and slight-of-hand skills has been in his family for generations, it will be lost forever unless he can establish a male heir he can teach this unique skill. Wang, who lost his only son decades ago, longs to adopt a little boy who could become the next “King of Masks.”
In this poverty-ridden society, girls are not just second-class citizens, they are sold off in the black market by families who cannot afford them. Only the rarest, poorest families would discard a young male, yet Wang finds little Doggie (Zhou Ren-ying), an adorable 7-year-old sold by his destitute father. The elderly street performer gives his newly adopted grandson great love and attention, but his words come across as very conditional. Wang says, “Be good and work hard so that you’ll have my love and attention.” A few weeks later, Wang discovers that Doggie is really a girl.
The terrified child begs the man to stay with him. Tradition forbids Wang from passing his art on to a girl, but he reluctantly agrees to keep her on as a sidekick and servant. He tells her to call him “boss.” The little girl quickly becomes a successful addition to Wang’s act, and the two soon form a strong bond of affection.
The old man is also befriended by Master Liang (Zhoa Ahigang), the region’s most revered operatic performer, who always performs in women’s clothing. Deep troubles start when Doggie accidentally burns Wang’s wooden boat home. Wang banishes Doggie and becomes filled with sorrow. Doggie is captured by black marketers and sold. At her new home, she discovers a little boy who has been kidnapped. Doggie and the boy escape their new owners, and Doggie gives the boy to Wang, so that Wang can have an heir. Yet, Wang is arrested for kidnapping and is prepared to be put to death as an example to all would-be kidnappers. Doggie elicits Master Liang’s help in a desperate attempt to free Wang, resulting in an unexpected blessing for all involved.
The slowly evolving, mutually beneficial relationship between Wang and Doggie is the only moral quality to this movie. People do need each other, and it is heart-warming to see how they eventually warm to one another. Wang, however, never really wanted a girl and makes his love conditional on her good behavior and hard work. He later tries to get rid of her on several occasions. In keeping her, he brings her along to Buddhist worship. On many occasions, he talks about bad Karma and takes her to see Master Liang perform a play called “Attaining Nirvana.” No doubt, Chinese culture is infinitely familiar with Buddhism, but one can’t help to be angered that the plight of Wang, and his class, wouldn’t be as severe if Buddhism didn’t have its deceptive grip on so large a populace. The movie does, however, give the pragmatic lesson that you better be kind to the least members of society because you may need them later to get you out of a jam.
The photography, acting and art direction of THE KING OF MASKS are superb. The time period and locale of the movie seem authentic and not the product of a Hollywood interpretation. The movie is definitely educational, but not otherwise beneficial. Nor does it achieve its aspirations of being uplifting and heroic. Except for the very last scene, the destitution, poverty and spiritual bankruptcy probably will leave the audience slightly numbed.
Sad stories and stories of cultures with false religions have their place, but this movie offers too many problems, and no genuine solutions. It is only when Doggie rises above her environment and what she is taught that rewards come. Hence, Wang offers a little heroism, despite the best efforts of the filmmakers to make it seem otherwise. Slow moving, oddly told, spiritually off, and dramatically inconsistent, THE KING OF MASKS will get lost in the summer of 1999 Hollywood blockbusters.