KING OF MASKS, THENR
Emerging from a primeval mist is an old, gap-toothed man and a small monkey. The old man is rowing a boat. Despite the movement of the tiny craft, there is a great stillness and silence on the river. You sense the loneliness of the old man, the timelessness of the river, and the weight of the man's journey. The man is Wang, the King of Masks, who can change his identity with a flick of his head, whose ancient art is practiced on the streets of the cities he visits. Long abandoned by his wife and child, Wang's anguish stems from his lack of a male heir. Practicing an ancient religion in 20th-century China, Wang is the embodiment of tradition, the keeper of an old art form, but he also resembles his constant companion, the monkey, who symbolizes intelligence and imagination. So, when he buys a boy in the market of unwanted children, and finds it is a girl, Wang is angered over the deception, but eventually realizes that 'Doggie,' true to her pet name, will be a comfort to him, and will carry on the tradition of the masks.
The King of Masks is both a charming film and a contemporary allegory, old-fashioned storytelling and scathing commentary. Bought and sold seven times, Doggie, a child of perhaps eight, has been beaten and enslaved her entire life because of her gender. Although Wang cries when Doggie shows him her bruises, even this kindly 'grandfather' refuses to teach her an art form that would ensure her a comfortable existence. Tradition requires he pass his skills on to a male heir. Tianming takes every opportunity to illustrate the indignities Doggie must endure, and he is also quick to point out the symbolic ways in which the feminine is sacrificed and suppressed in Chinese myth. Wang and Doggie attend an opera, Attaining Nirvana, in which a princess, distraught over her father's suffering in the underworld, vows to join him so that she may comfort him. Sacrificing herself, she becomes a Bodhisattva. After the opera, feeling the weight of Wang's rejection--he teaches her acrobatics but not the secrets of the masks--Doggie is confused over the symbolic acceptance of goddesses but the real-world rejection of girls and women. When she picks up a statue of the Bodhisattva which Wang keeps on his boat, and points out that the old man worships her, Wang has no answer for his adopted child. 'If only you were a boy,' he laments.
Like many great films, Tianming's transcends cultural boundaries, and at the same time connects us to the peculiar mysteries of one culture. While depicting the suppression of the feminine in China, the film also illustrates the symbolic existence of the Great Mother in the Bodhisattva, and the implicit hope for redemption which she embodies. The King of Masks celebrates the resiliency of the human spirit, and it illustrates how one sacrifice can elevate the lives of everyone who witnesses it. When Wang ends up in jail on a false charge, Doggie sacrifices herself just as she saw the princess do in Attaining Nirvana. It is the Bodhisattva--the man who plays the princess--who rescues her, who carries Doggie's bruised body and pleads with the police to release the old man. Doggie, too, has reached Nirvana, and those around her a new level of consciousness, even the old man, who comes to realize that the girl he rejected is actually much more precious than the boy he wished and prayed for.
Tianming, who took an eight-year hiatus in the U.S. after Tiananmen Square--he happened to be in the country when the demonstration took place--had his share of problems with Chinese authorities while launching the careers of many fifth-generation filmmakers, including Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern). The King of Masks marks his return to China. In it, we perceive the heart of a man troubled by his love of a country that often doesn't live up to his ideal of it, but also an artist who draws us into the sacrifices that love has required of him so that we find ourselves, in the end, transformed by his vision.