As the Hong Kong film industry exploded in between 1983 and 1995 (the Golden Age, as some fans call it) with the help of action maestros such as Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and John Woo, it was easy to forget that movies could originate somewhere other than Hong Kong. The so-called “fifth generation” of Chinese filmmaking arose around the same time on the mainland, a group of Beijing Film Academy students who saw arthouse success in America with dramas such as Farewell My Concubine and Raise the Red Lantern. Although it came almost ten years later in 1996, a decent example of what the Fifth Generation has to offer can be found in this week’s movie, Wu Tianming’s The King of Masks.
The King of Masks is a old man named Wang (Zhu Xu), who makes a meager living as a street performer in the 1930s. He uses sleight of hand to put on, change, and take off his silk masks very quickly. A star female impersonator in the Chinese opera (real-life opera star Zhao Zhigang) notices Wang’s art, sees it for the mastery it is, and urges him to pass it on for future generations. The only problem is that Wang’s art has always been passed on from father to son, and Wang has no children.
It turns out that girl-children are not valued very highly in Wang’s city. Wang is willing to buy a boy on the black market, but he can’t find any, while girls are being given away for free. He happens upon a boy (Renying Zhou), buys him, nicknames him Doggie, and it looks like we’re off. Only one problem: Doggie turns out to be a girl, one who has already been traded seven times before. This movie is about solving that problem.
One of the things that was born of the Golden Age was real production values in the period movies. If you look at Jackie Chan’s early films, or another pre-Golden Age classic like Magnificent Butcher, they look like they were shot in somebody’s backyard in Hong Kong. The King of Masks, on the other hand, looks spectacular, on a par with the action blockbusters of its time such as Once Upon a Time in China. That’s important because this is a movie which piles on the suffering. Basically, someone is miserable in every scene of this film; the only question is if it’s Wang or Doggie. If the movie had spent any less effort in looking good, I might have tired of watching all of these people and their sorrows, but instead I felt like I was really drawn into their world.
The issue of gender is an awkward one in this movie. As one Movie Klubber joked afterward: this movie delivers the message that, even if a girl is the best daughter in the history of daughters, it makes her simply equal to an average son. However, it’s important to remember that this film was not made in Hong Kong, but on the mainland, where the government had a one-child policy that still persists today. That policy did not officially encourage the abortion or infanticide of female children, but that ended up being the result, because Confucianism tends to value sons over daughters. I interpreted The King of Masks to be a criticism of Confucianism in that way, but one that had to be necessarily subtle, lest it be taken as a criticism of the one-child policy (and thus likely vulnerable to censorship).
Outside of Zhu Xu’s incredibly humble performance, I wasn’t sure what to make of the actors in this movie. Zhigang only gets a few scenes, and only one of those has any real emotional power, but he definitely sells that scene to the hilt. Renying Zhou is okay, although like most child actors I thought she looked less good the more she was asked to cry on camera. In a way, that’s best; in a movie called The King of Masks, you’d like the guy playing the King to be the best actor. A browse of IMDb suggests that Zhou has not acted since; rather like Carrie Henn from Aliens, she went out on top.
Although I am aware of the Fifth Generation, and I trust the critics who worship at the altar of directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, I have to admit to being largely ignorant of their movies.* This piece is indebted to Roger Ebert’s 1996 review, without which I would not have known this film’s connections to the Fifth Generation at all. The best thing I can say about The King of Masks is that it strongly makes me want to learn more. It is a well-executed work of sincerity and honesty. Wu Tianming was the studio head who approved many of the Fifth Generation’s best films, and it seems that he learned their lessons perfectly.
Reviewed by Mark Young. As of this writing, The King of Masks is available on YouTube.
*I have seen, and highly recommend, Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers, but that is not considered to be a Fifth Generation film.