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Movie Reviews

The King Of Masks  

Countries outside of North America have a knack for producing films about children which take the time to reveal the complexites of such kids. While Hollywood dumbs down to kids, with silly "family" movies, European and other world films actually create characters out of children. Francois Truffaut made a number of classics about kids, such as The 400 Blows and Small Change. And such films as Ma Vie En Rose, The Spirit of The Beehive, and one of my favourite films, Ponette, also give us interesting characters. The Chinese film The King of Masks also gives us a facinating child character, but it does double duty by also giving us a glimpse into the harshness of Chinese society.

An old man practises a dying art form, which involves paper masks, and sleight of hand, allowing him to put on and take off these masks with such speed and surprise that the audience cannot begin to guess how he does it. As a street performer, he depends on appreciation of his skill, not showy extravagence. But the cultural surroundings are changing, and people like him are not nearly as facinating to as many people anymore. Yet he still clings to the old ways, wanting a son whom he can teach his dying art. This "son" does not necessarily have to be aquired by traditional methods, not in such a poverty-stricken and morally corrupt region, as the old man passes by hordes of adults, claiming to be parents but possibly criminals, selling children at any price to those who want them. The old man takes one child, who apparently has been abused by former owners, and is striken on hearing about such pain. The man intends to someday teach the art of masks to the son. But, in a rather unique revelation, it is soon revealed that this boy, the old man`s greatest wish, is in fact a girl. Suddenly, everything changes.

This film exposes the brutal and unyielding patriarchy of Chinese society, which seeps into virtually every character. We understand what is really going on when finding out the boy is really a girl, after having just seen the old man see the bruises over "his" body. The girl wasn`t beaten because she had a terrible father, but because she was a girl, plain and simple. And while we have the impression of the old man as a kind and gentle soul, the fact is that he is a part of this society, and does not question it. He specifically demands a son, because, as far as he`s concerned, only boys are allowed to learn such vital tasks as learning how to make paper masks and impress an audience. So when he does find out the child`s true sex, he doesn`t become sympathetic, but enters into the process of abandoning her to the world, in a wrenching scene. It is only due to an accident, in which the child nearly drowns, that the old man ends up attached to her again. Even then, for much of the film, he still wishes for a boy he can call his own.

As well, the justice system takes a real licking. The old man is arrested in connection with a string of child kidnapping. I won`t reveal the excat event which causes this arrest, but it is apparent that he is arrested without a proper trial, or even evidence that he committed anything. In fact, the officals even say to themselves that they will put all the charges on his head, possibly to ensure that the citizens will be comforted by the government`s swift handling of the case.

Merely as a study of a child character, this film ranks right up there with Ponette. The child who played Ponette was only four, and the girl in our film isn`t much older; both of them are very impressive. There is little doubt that the kid is capable of performing; she, after all, is a pivitol character. And, as a side note, she is also quite skillful in non- acting endeavours, during a section of the film in which she performs acrobatic feats for the audience. She has a lot of powerful moments, from the scene in which her "grandpa" sails away without her, to the climax, which is melodramatic, to say the least, but is certainly quite fitting and touching as well.

This is one of those unique films, in that it is both bitter realism and, eventually, heartwarming. This is certainly a decent enough film for families who actually like foreign films, as it is relatively mild (except for a couple of profanities), it deals, on the surface, with children, and teaches the lesson, which even in this era still needs to be stated in many a children`s show, that girls can do anything that boys can do.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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