The Artist as Survivor
December 1, 1999
Dec 1, 1999
17 Min read time
King of Masks, directed by Wu Tian Ming.
King of Masks
Directed by Wu Tian Ming
The best recent family film released in the United States, King of Masks, was made in the People’s Republic of China. Samuel Goldwyn Studio decided to distribute it here, but they marketed King of Masks as an art film and almost no one saw it. Like much of the potential art-film audience, I was put off by the trailer which seemed cloyingly sentimental, a reaction confirmed by a review that began, "Corn doesn’t get any sweeter." I relented at the urging of a Chinese-speaking friend who gave King of Masks high praise. In the end I saw it twice, and as I came out of the theater drying my eyes for the second time I announced to my companions: "This is a film I could see once a month. It is better than therapy." Yes, King of Masks is sentimental, but in just the way that Dickens is: this is a film to restore one’s faith in human nature–your own and that of others. And isn’t that what therapy is about?
The director/producer of King of Masks, Wu Tian Ming, is widely regarded as the father of the fifth generation of Chinese filmmakers. (Best known to American audiences is his protégé Zhang Yimou of Raise the Red Lantern, Red Sorghum, and The Story of Qiu Ju.) For years, despite the constraints of censorship, Wu, as head of the Xi-an Film Studios, eked out enough political and economic space for his group to create films whose artistry was admired internationally. Unlike their ideologically unconstrained Hong Kong confreres who did everything from avant-garde to Kung Fu versions of Hollywood action movies, Wu’s group crafted period-piece art films that were safely located in the pre-communist era and preserved the exotic images of old China.
The Xi-an studio films are typically fables. Even Wu’s The Well and Zhang Yimou’s Story of Qiu Ju, both set in contemporary China, were timeless narratives about the human predicament. Although some Western critics could find political protest in these fables, the Xi-an filmmakers seemed to have been inspired by the high culture of China’s past.
Their films were also notable for the sheer beauty of the cinematography. European directors have always been influenced by paintings. In the days of black-and-white silent film, there were the great German expressionists, French surrealists, and Russian symbolists. In Metropolis, Fritz Lang intended his set designs to dwarf his actors. The advent and perfection of color film in the second half of the century opened the entire pallet of Western painting to cinematography. Truffaut’s Story of Adele H and Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon were as memorable for their painterly cinematography as for their plots. Fellini’s later films were more like murals than movies. All of Peter Greenaway’s films are first of all paintings that move. Perhaps because they were constrained by censorship, Wu and his fifth generation poured much of their creative energy into their cinematography, which has both the subtlety and the unexpected exuberance of Chinese art.
Wu led this community of accomplished film artists until Tiananmen Square. As fate would have it, he was then in the United States on a lecture tour sponsored by the Chinese-American Community. Wu resolved not to return to his homeland. But like other creative émigrés he languished: he had lost the wellsprings of his genius and his workshop. After six years of self-imposed exile, including a stint in a video store where he subjected himself to a huge dose of American films–he claims 900–Wu went back to his homeland to work again. Though he was unsure about how he would be received, he suffered no political recriminations; the bottom line had become more important than ideology in the new China.
The world of Chinese filmmaking has certainly changed in recent years. The Xi-an studio had been organized and run like a bureaucratic collective. Upon his return, Wu was free to bring in more talented people, make deals in Hong Kong, and be less concerned about politics and censorship. In this climate Zhang Yimou broke loose with a new-edge urban film, Keep Cool. The international community, which had acclaimed his earlier work, gave it unanimous thumbs down. He was not able to show it at the Cannes Film Festival and has yet to find a distributor. Zhang Yimou accused Western critics of trying to force Chinese filmmakers to fit a stereotype. The success of Ang Lee (Eat Drink Man Woman,Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) suggests that if Western critics have stereotypes, they are not antisinitic. Although Zhang Yimou may not welcome this hypothesis, it may be that the artistic achievement of the Xi-an studio group is an example of creativity emerging against the tensions of restraints. In any event, it will be interesting to watch the fifth generation and what they turn out now that they have been exposed to the Hong Kong virus.
Whatever the temptations of this new freedom may be, Wu Tian Ming seems immune to them. He turned inwards, as though in returning to China he wanted to get back to his own cultural identity. Wu’s film, King of Masks, is an allegory about traditional Chinese values, the place of the artist in society, and the possibilities of human connection. It is at the same time a self-portrait–the artist as survivor.
King of Masks was completed in 1996, and before it came to the United States had garnered prizes at film festivals around the world, including China’s own Oscar, the Golden Rooster. Wu had not been a prolific director. This was his first film in eight years and he "did not want to lose face." He also worried that his new Hong Kong backers would lose money. The original version of the screenplay about a lonely grandfather did not meet his high standards so he enlisted Wei Minglung, from Sichuan Province, who rewrote the script, bringing to it his own experience and knowledge of Chinese Theater tradition. The grandfather was made into a master conjurer, and the film was set in Sichuan Province in 1930, a time of conflict between regional warlords and Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist troops. It was also a time of natural disaster, as rivers flooded and the poor were left starving and homeless.
The screenplay as filmed has a classic, almost operatic theatrical structure. All the characters are introduced in the first few scenes in a cinematic overture. There is love at first sight, tragic misunderstanding, character transformation, and a play within the screenplay that is crucial to the plot and coda of a happy ending. The cinematography is exotic and astonishingly beautiful–from the boom shots of the Great Buddha carved into the limestone banks of the river to the close-ups of the wet and muddy foot of the little girl. The director’s eye for composition never fails the audience–the film’s art is as insistent as its narrative. Each scene begins and ends with visual art.
A recent run of successful foreign-made films features the fulfilling "love affair" between parent and child. Two Oscar winners, Burnt by the Sun and Life is Beautiful, celebrate fathers who are martyrs. They face the horror of death with a smile so their child’s faith in the security of its world will not be disturbed. Others, such as Kolya, Central Station, and King of Masks, portray the falling in love of an unrelated adult and a small unwanted child. Here it is an old man and a young girl who has never known a secure world, and it is the child who is ready to die for her adopted grandfather. This adult-child "romance" is hardly a new cinematic theme and it smacks of sentimentality. Pauline Kael complained about it years ago as a trick in foreign films, but it is also a Hollywood staple. There may be nothing new in the "romance" of parent and child but there are variations like King of Masks that evoke the emotional intensity of the original.
The original portrayals of this "romance" in Western Culture and of all romantic art according to Hegel were those paintings of the Madonna and Child, where the beholder was invited to enter into the sacred spirit of love depicted in Mary’s gazing at her child. In life as in art, romantic means entering into and sharing an emotional union–love as a transcending of the self. Romantic love between adults is more difficult to achieve because it entails reciprocity in the transcendence of self. In the twentieth century, such romantic love is the utopian antidote for our existential loneliness. Everyone is looking for it, and the explicit details of the expected reciprocity are depicted in the personals of most newspapers. But all this looking demonstrates that what is really miraculous is the "happily ever after." Lasting reciprocal love between adults is indeed the miracle of the twentieth century. Many have lost faith and have returned in life and in art to parent-child variations on Hegel’s romantic original–the Madonna and Child. Wu gives us the King of Masks and Doggie, his adopted child.
The King of Masks, an old street performer, is played by Zhu Xu of the Beijing People’s Artistic Theater. He is an actor with presence; tall, lean, aged but not bent, with a front tooth conspicuously missing that somehow adds to his dignity. A pass-the-hat street performer, he has learned through years of practice to change masks with such rapidity and skill that he is able to mystify his audience by his seemingly magical transformations. To the people who gather around him in the street it is a trick. But the King of Masks is a consummate artist, and the last practitioner of a traditional art form that will die with him if he finds no disciple. His tradition also requires that he keep his magic a secret to be passed on only to a son. His only son died in childhood, however, and his wife has long since abandoned him.
The King of Masks moves through Sichuan Province in a houseboat on the river. His trained monkey is his only companion. If they give Golden Roosters to animal actors, the monkey certainly deserves one. Wu seems to have exploited every mannerism of his animal actor to a good purpose. There is the frantic pacing back and forth, used by Wu to convey the mood of desperation; the quizzical almost human expression that asks what are these people doing; the shrieks and jumping up and down when the child accidentally sets the houseboat on fire. Every emotional passage in the film is marked by this trained monkey as a kind of Greek chorus. I emphasize this in the hope of suggesting the uncanny genius of Wu’s direction. Operating within a limited budget he has used every resource at his disposal to fashion a jewel of a film–even a trained monkey who plays the part of a trained monkey.
Wu cast Xu and his co-star, the eight year old girl Zhou Ren-ying, for the parts because they were in real life what they were to be in his film. Zhu Xu has been performing for over 40 years and has endured every adversity, including the Cultural Revolution, with "the same temperament of kindness, understanding and humor as the character he plays." Out of the more than a hundred young girls who applied for the part of Doggie, Wu chose Zhou Ren-Ying from the Xi-an Acrobatic Troupe. Sent there by her very poor family when she was three years old, she grew up lacking parental nurturing. Her role as Doggie, the little girl no family wants, is in some sense an enactment of her reality. The third central actor in the film, Zhao Zhigang, is in real life "The Prince of the Shaoxing Opera." Wu cast him as Master Liang, the celebrated female impersonator of the Sichuan Opera. Zhao, whom Wu describes as "the handsome young scholar type," might seem less believable than his co-stars, particularly if you judge him by the extraordinary standard set by Leslie Cheung in Farewell My Concubine. Cheung played the same kind of female impersonation role, but his performance seemed the fulfillment of some deep core of his sexual being. Zhao, in contrast, conveys a sense of resignation and regret as though his masculinity has been imprisoned in an unwanted, if celebrated, female identity. This, it turns out, is exactly what Wu wanted. All three of Wu’s protagonists are in some crucial sense social outcasts, the lonely street performer, the unwanted girl, and the rich and famous Master Liang trapped in his female impersonation.
We can see Wu’s directorial sophistication in self-reflexive moments when actors comment ironically on the sentimental elements of his story. For example, there comes a time when the King of Masks is again alone and the monkey, trying to console his master, brings him his bottle of wine and snuggles in his arms. The King hugs the animal and tells him he is wonderful, but still not a son. The King also is given to talking in allegorical language. Wu realizes it’s a bit much and has his prison guard take the King down a notch for his pretty phrases. Director Wu knows exactly when to add sour to the sweet sauce of his recipe.
The King of Masks is a proud artist, who knows his own value even if no one else does. But behind the old man’s pride we see the shadows of his loneliness. In a Sichuan Province shaken by war and ravaged by floods he has the chance to buy a child. Starving parents are selling their sons, and they will give their daughter to anyone who promises the child a home. The difference between the child who has and does not have a "teapot spout" is measured by the market price and its import is sanctified by centuries of patriarchal tradition. The King of Masks does not want the daughters who are thrust at him by their mothers; he wants a son. He turns on his heels, about to give up, when a child’s voice cries out "Yeh Yeh," grandfather in Chinese. "Yeh Yeh" is the word one takes away from the film. It will echo in your mind as Doggie utters it with every different emotion of which a child is capable. This first "Yeh Yeh" causes the King of Masks to turn back and behold just the little boy he wanted. Here is the miracle of love at first sight. A price is agreed upon and, after buying Doggie new clothes, he triumphantly takes the child to his little houseboat on the river bank.
The monkey greets the child with a show of displeasure–sibling rivalry?–but soon man and monkey have succumbed to the new arrival. The child warms to the King’s kindness and both allow themselves to be vulnerable. This is the crucial step in every love affair, the psychological moment when the defensive armor is let down. This does not come easy to either of these would be lovers even though it looks like a match made in heaven. Doggie, as we will soon discover, is a girl pretending to be a boy so that the dealer could sell her for a price. She had already been in several homes where she had been abused, so she has reasons to be defensive and distrusting. And despite her growing affection she has to keep on pretending she is a boy.
The King, in taking Doggie into his life, is giving up years of self-sufficiency. His prideful habits have become his defense against loneliness. Now, as Doggie scratches his back where he cannot reach, he throws his backscratcher into the river to seal his commitment to their love affair.
The audience may have sensed Doggie’s male imposture, but that first night it is revealed as Doggie climbs out of bed and the King’s arms to pee. Barely awakened and told of her need, he advises her to pee off the front of the boat and he goes back to sleep, but we watch as she squats on the shore to relieve and reveal herself. Like many would be lovers, she has a secret she is not prepared to tell.
Part of Doggie’s irresistible charm is that she is both naïve and indignant as to why a "teapot spout" should make such a difference. Wu sets her innocent conviction against China’s patriarchal tradition and its history of female infanticide that echoes into this century. Wu’s film is the story of how this indignant little girl conquers that age-old tradition to the benefit of everyone.
The resolution of Doggie’s gender imposture will require the intervention of the female impersonator, Master Liang, and a Chinese opera about filial love in which he plays a daughter who leaps into the pits of hell to save her father and is reborn as the living Bodhisattva. In the Buddhist tradition of China, the Bodhisattva is worshiped as a deity because on the verge of Nirvana he/she renounced bliss out of consideration for others. Master Liang is saintly in his consideration for the King of Masks. He alone recognizes that the traditional art of the master conjurer is precious and must be saved. But the stubborn man mistakes his generosity and thinks it is an attempt to buy his precious secrets. Despite being a sexless female impersonator–there is even a hint that Master Liang is castrated–he is the talisman of fertility and the birth of male children. He is pursued by crowds of young women who believe that by touching him they will be blessed with the male child they all covet. Gender identity is a central theme of King of Masks, and Master Liang, who lives between the categories, mediates between male and female.
King of Masks is about tradition, an increasingly exotic commodity to most Americans. But in much of the world tradition gives structure, if not meaning, to civilized human activity; it is the tangible link to the historical past and the hope of human continuity in the future. Abandon tradition and we abandon our solidarity with our group. But tradition is also a restraint on liberty. It may give meaning to a group, but it can be a prison to the free thinker and the guarantor of the oppressive "teapot spout" social order. King of Masks is about traditions good and bad. We see the patriarchal tradition and the degraded status of females demonstrated at every turn of the film. But there is also the precious tradition of the artist. The King of Masks and Master Liang may be outcasts, but they practice traditional art forms that bring a little warmth to cold reality. One can not help but believe that this is Wu Tian Ming’s account and justification for what he has done with his own life.
Tradition is what allows the King of Masks his quiet dignity. He has practiced his art from childhood. He passes the hat but he is not a beggar–he is an artist, and other true artists, like Master Liang, can appreciate him. Their belief in their own tradition of art is what unites and protects them from the self-interested cynicism that surrounds them.
But it is also tradition that makes the King of Masks believe that he cannot bequeath his patrimony to Doggie. No ordinary girl, she is determined to stay with "Yeh Yeh," the first of the strangers who took her in and treated her, as she puts it, like a member of his family. And she has his talent and wants to be his apprentice. We can see that these two were made for each other and only his and China’s patriarchal tradition interferes with their union.
The problem of the film is how the good and bad traditions can be reconciled. The solution is found in the play within the play as performed at the Sichuan Opera starring Master Liang. Master Liang, who admires the artistry of the King of Masks, befriends him and invites him and Doggie to the Opera. The moral of the Opera is filial love. That phrase in English seems inadequate to carry the emotional burden it must bear. The Chinese language has a special word for love of a parent, "xiao." It has an obligatory overtone conveying honor, respect, and obedient love. Doggie, who has never had a parent’s love, has become stubborn, determined, and defiant, causing all sorts of calamities to befall the King of Masks as she tried to make him accept her. Now she learns "xiao" from Master Liang’s performance and she risks her life to save Yeh Yeh from death. She does not die or turn into the Living Boddhisattva, but she does make the proud old man unbend and love her. As the film ends we see her practicing with the King of Masks. We know that the art form is not dead and that there will be a happily ever after. We also know that both Yeh Yeh and Doggie have broken out of the cage of their characters in order to achieve "romantic" love.
Confucius said that human nature is the same everywhere, only the customs are different. This is a film that will make you hope he was right.
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December 01, 1999
17 Min read time