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King of Masks
Chinese: 變臉

Laughs aplenty in King of Masks
Year: 1999
Director: Wu Tianming
Producer: Mona Fong Yat-Wah, Titus Ho
Writer: Wei Minglun
Cast: Zhu Xu, Zhao Zhigang, Zhou Renying, Zhang Riuyang
The Skinny: Should a person ignore the prevailing conventions of his society in order to save a time-honored tradition from extinction? That's the thorny question put before the title character in this winning, tenderhearted tale from Mainland director Wu Tianming.
 
Review by Calvin McMillin:

In 1930s China, an elderly street performer named Wang Bianlian (Zhu Xu) wishes to pass on his amazing "face-changing" opera techniques to a younger generation. Unfortunately, there's one thing preventing the aging "King of Masks" from achieving this dream: he has no son. In his journeys, Wang meets Liang Saolang (Zhao Zhigang), a wildly popular female impersonator, who is known best for his imitation of the Goddess Guanyin. Although Master Liang offers Wang a hefty sum to join his famed opera troupe, the elder performer declines and instead searches for a proper son to carry on his sacred tradition. Eventually, Wang ends up buying an orphaned boy in a back alley deal. Named Gou Wa (Zhou Renying), the young child quickly charms the old man, but not long after, Wang discovers that his prized apprentice hides a secret from him: Guo Wa is a girl, and therefore an unsuitable heir in Wang's eyes.

What comes next is a poignant film that would teeter past the brink of maudlin were it not for the fine, naturalistic performances of its lead actors, Zhu Xu and Zhou Renying. Thanks to them, The King of Masks feels neither cloying nor overly manipulative; the film earns every one of its emotional beats. Even better, this isn't just another tale of a precocious child who melts the icy heart of a crotchety old man. Instead, we have a film that seems to be made of sterner stuff. A subtle game of gender politics plays out in this unconventional take on the age-old story of a master and his apprentice. But even as the film wishes to throw light on some heady subject matter, it never loses sight of its story, which is one so genuinely charming that even the most jaded of cinemagoers might find themselves hard pressed to resist. (Calvin McMillin, 2003)

 
  Availability:

DVD (USA)
Region 1 NTSC
Columbia Tri-Star
Pan and Scan
Mandarin Language Track
Removable English, Spanish, and French Subtitles
Theatrical Trailer

 
   
image courtesy of Columbia Tri-Star Home Video
 
   
 
 
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