Friday, 7 September 2007

The King of Masks (1997)

English title: The King of Masks.
Chinese title: Face Changing.

The King of MasksIf you don't want people to know that you cry like a refugee in a movie, you'd better watch this movie alone. This isn't a tearjerker, but a waterworks turner.

I always like movies that set in the Republican period, which although only covers an interval less than 0.5 century, it's nonetheless a very colourful and interesting period in Chinese modern history. Matched only by its many colourful and interesting human dramas that come out of it. These stories almost always, - no, it ALWAYS - questions, at least explores the many Chinese old cultural traditions, and beliefs.

Let take an example, the old man (and everyone else) in this movie are steeped in superstition, but at the same time, it's also this superstitions and beliefs that allow the old man to come to terms with his own misfortunes, and forgives his grand-daughter so readily.

And where did they find the little girl who played the 8-year-old with such astounding talents? Nor have I known any of the act(ors/resses) in this film .But they put on good performances.

Guanyin or Boddhisattva always has gender ambiguity in Chinese culture, though she's a woman. This reflects the patriarchal nature of Chinese culture. And similarly, the role of Bodhisattva (in the opera) is played by a male actor, Mr. Liang.

As I travelled to Sichuan in 2009, I'm happy to report that the art of face-changing is far from dying out. Everywhere I went, I was treated with this face-changing Opera from the river cruise I was on, or walking in the streets, or dining in the restaurant. Yes, the face-changing performer I watched in the cruise was in fact performed by a girl. And face-changing is so popular and common in Sichuan these days that it is no longer enough by itself, the face-changer had to do some fire-eating while wearing the facemask. I remember how worried I was that the facemasks may catch fire (we saw what happens in the movie when the grand-daughter examines the masks too close to a lit candle). And while I watched the fire-eating act, I was eating fire myself by drinking the soup from Sichuan steamboat. Actually, I think eating fire would be less hot (and is drinking soup from Sichuan steamboat the secret of the fire-eating training? I think so).

Does the face-changing a symbolism of the fast changing face of modern China? If it is, its messages are mixed. As a symbolism for the old man's changing attitude towards his old tradition of handing down his art only to male heir is obvious and clear from the Chinese title.

If I have to name the most gut-wrenching and heart-warming out of this list, I would nominate this film. If you like a moving story with the Dickensian social backdrop, get yourself a few boxes of tissues (and a fast face-changing expression from sobbing to smiling when somebody walks into the middle of your embarrassing moments).

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