Most films that make it to the United States from mainland China touch on three themes: family ties, political upheavals and traditional Chinese arts. "The King of Masks" deals more with the latter, but through its intimate story of a makeshift family, indicates some of the social changes to come.
Set in 1930 in the Sichuan province, "The King of Masks" focuses on street performer Bian Lian Wang (Chu Yuk), a master at the art of "face changing," a rapid-fire quick-change of cloth masks that he utilizes in audience-pleasing performances.
His skill so impresses Master Liang Sao Lang (Zhao Zhigang), a star Chinese Opera performer, that he offers Wang a place in his troupe. The grandfatherly "King of Masks" politely refuses, choosing to continue his peripatetic lifestyle on a houseboat accompanied by his monkey. But the encounter with Master Liang spurs a decision: Wang must find an heir to carry on his dying art.
In his family tradition, face-changing can't be taught to outsiders, only male family members. So Wang goes to an orphanage where among all the pleading girls -- female children are seen to have no intrinsic value -- he miraculously finds Doggie (Chao Yim Yin), a 7-year-old who perfectly fits the bill.
After placing his hopes for the future on Doggie, Wang discovers he's been conned. Doggie is actually a girl, and she quickly goes from being a beloved grandson to a barely tolerated servant. Even when the agile Doggie becomes an acrobatic warm-up to his face-changing performances, their relationship remains chilly.
It's at this point that screenwriter Wei Minglung and director Wu Tianming (Old Well) turn toward old-fashioned melodrama, putting an innocent Wang in prison and Doggie on a desperate mission to free him.
There's a comfortable predictability to the exquisitely filmed "The King of Masks," which manages to slide in gender politics -- Master Liang's impersonation of women makes him famous, but Doggie is reviled for posing as a boy -- along with its liberal doses of sentimentality. The end result is a forward-thinking traditionalist film, which seeks to uphold ancient customs while still giving individuals enough breathing room to make up their own rules.