IMDB information

Released 1996.
Directed by Tian-Ming Wu.
Running time: 91 minutes.

Credited Cast
Zhigang Zhang           Sulan, Luo
Zhigang Zhao            Liang Sao Lang
Renying Zhou            Gou Wa ("Doggie")
Xu Zhu                  Bianlian Wang


Wang Bianlian, the enigmatic King of Masks, is a travelling entertainer in 1930's China. His gimmick? The ability to change masks at an astonishing pace. However, as he is getting on in years and without a son, the search for a successor begins. In the end, he ends up buying a boy from the slave market to train. However, this 'boy' is not really a boy at all, and in keeping with traditional Chinese values, the King of Masks decides that he absolutely cannot train her in the family secrets passed down through the ages.


I have now seen this movie on three separate occasions, as it seemed to be quite the favorite of many of my Chinese teachers throughout college. Upon first viewing, the audience is quite taken in by the disparity of privileges between men and women in this very recent era of Chinese history. Gender roles play a significant role in this movie, not only in the obvious case of 'Doggie', but also with an actor playing all female roles named Master Liang. Even though he is regarded as a local hero, he laments to Wang Bianlian regarding the amount of respect he gets within his industry; being a female impersonator, even the best one in his art, isn’t as valued as acting as a male. This struck me as very odd, as I would assume that it is far more difficult to act opposite your gender.

Upon closer examination, one finds much insight into the culture and religion of the times; at one point, the King of masks purchases a clay goddess purported to be able to provide sons, and at another, he donates money to a temple to get his fortune told. There is also the heavy presence of soldiers in the area, indicative of the many varied conflicts that the two armies of China faced, both against the world, and between each other. Also, the heavily Confucian ideal of respect towards one's elders is exhibited quite frequently throughout the movie, and one can begin to appreciate the rich hierarchies that pervade Chinese culture.

In all, this movie is quite a melodramatic piece. As I am not usually prone to sympathizing with characters in movies, I was surprised to feel my heart getting tugged at during various points of the movie. To most seasoned movie-goers, the plot will most likely be relatively straightforward and without any undue surprises; however, I can say that even still, this movie stands up to multiple viewings.

You can most likely get this film in the foreign section of the rental superstore of your choice; ebay and Amazon are two likely places to purchase it.


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