King of Masks, The

Published: Friday, Oct. 15 1999 3:46 p.m. MDT

There's a line in "The King of Masks" that strikes home. At one point, an aging street performer meets a celebrated star of the Chinese opera, a male singer who performs women's roles with such exquisite delicacy it has made him a celebrity.

As it turns out, the street performer also possesses an extraordinary skill: He's able to switch masks with such amazing speed that his act seems magical. No one knows how he manages to put face upon face upon face.

The Szechuan opera star compliments the street performer, singing the praises of an artistry that's truly compelling.

"A small tea cup, but it doesn't leak," replies the man, who has an air of playful wisdom about him and a windy smile that reveals a missing tooth.

The line seemed especially appropriate in a movie committed to the virtues of craft. It suggests that it's better to rule a narrow kingdom than to preside over a large area that's only vaguely defined. "The King of Masks" prizes self-sufficiency, and that provides an important building block in director Wu Tianming's beautifully crafted movie.

"The King of Masks" marks the filmmaker's return to China. He spent five years teaching in the United States during a period of political turbulence in China. In his new movie, Wu finds a simple frame upon which to hang complicated issues about the role of gender and tradition in Chinese society. Set during the 1930s, the movie shows how Wang, the main character, develops a relationship with a potential heir (Zhou Ren-ying).

Wang wants to pass his skills to the next generation but is bound by tradition. Only a male is entitled to learn the art of the mask. He's a widower whose only son died at age 10. During 30 years of wandering from town to town on his houseboat, he has grown elderly. He visits a market where children are sold. He "buys" a smashing looking boy who calls him grandfather, and you can see the old man's vitality returning. His spiritual pulse quickens.

This, of course, is the time in which impoverished Chinese fathers sometimes were forced to sell children, an act of desperation the movie chronicles in matter-of-fact fashion.

It should come as no surprise that the beautiful adopted child is really a girl. She can't disguise her gender forever. This knowledge changes the relationship between the old man and his charge, who is suddenly instructed to call him "boss" instead of "grandfather."

But the girl is smart, and proves a real helpmate as the movie moves predictably and melodramatically to the point at which Wang accepts her as the person who truly deserves to inherit his artistic mantle.

Questions of identity are gently explored while the movie serves up a banquet of exotic imagery. When the girl, whose nickname is "Doggie," climbs on the toes of a giant statue of Buddha, the image is so striking you can forgive a pat ending.

Considered in its entirety, "The King of Masks" is one of those Chinese movies that mixes exoticism, drama and misty beauty in ways that seldom fail to captivate.