Sweet, simple tear-jerker captures provincial China

August 13, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

They say Portuguese soap works best on the skin, but for tear-duct rinsing, Chinese soap may be the winner, at least the brand purveyed in "The King of Masks."

A melodrama set in 1930s China about a street performer (Zhu Xu) who longs to pass on his gift for magically changing masks to a grandson, "The King of Masks" is a well-filmed portrait of Chinese provincial life, as well as that country's traditions of filial piety and heartless sexism. If filmgoers don't mind being manipulated by lots of heart-rending scenes with impossibly sweet-looking waifs, as well as the sight of Zhu's own elderly, gap-toothed visage, they will be drawn in by this affecting glimpse of a country and an era gone by.

When the itinerant performer Bian Lian Wang (Zhu) decides to adopt a grandson, he goes to a local market, where mostly young girls -- guilty of being the wrong gender in male-centric China -- are up for sale for $2 apiece. Miraculously, Bian finds an 8-year-old boy who can carry on the tradition of artistry, cunning and legerdemain that has been in his family for generations.

But when Doggie (Zhou Ren-ying) goes to live with Bian and his pet monkey on their houseboat, Bian finds his life taking unexpected twists and turns. Finally, each digression collapses into another, domino-like, resulting in a disaster of dire proportions.

Director Wu Tianming has filmed "The King of Masks" with depth and grace, filling its gray backdrop with a vibrancy that makes even such simple details as a yellow umbrella or a red lantern stand out in luminous relief. And he has cast this story well, finding two enormously appealing actors with obvious rapport and even locating the most gifted 4-year-old actor in China (Zhang Riuyang) for a crucial supporting role.

"The King of Masks" prefers to stay on the schematic surface of its story and ultimately descends into histrionics worthy of the operas that form its subtext. But for many filmgoers, this handsome production and its sweetly simple message will cut even the heaviest syrup it ladles out.

`King of Masks'

(In Mandarin with English subtitles)

Starring Zhu Xu, Zhou Ren-ying, Zhang Riuyang, Zhao Zhigang

Directed by Wu Tianming

Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films

Running time: 95 minutes

Rating: Unrated (nothing objectionable)

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 8/13/99

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