The Undervalued: “The King of Masks”

ABEB34BB-C348-4105-90D8-5D51F0D31283In the West, the lives of most little girls are hardly devoid of privileges and delights.  In China of the 1930s, however, little girls were rigidly undervalued and sold by their impoverished parents (or keepers) to ensure all-around survival.

“Doggie” (Zhou Ron-Ying), the child in the Chinese picture The King of Masks (1996), has keepers, not parents.  An elderly street performer, Wang (Zhu Xu), is fooled into thinking she is a young boy and buys her, only to be shocked and dismayed when it transpires she is a girl.  It is only a boy who can inherit Wang’s silk mask entertainment trade after he dies.  Not without pity, the old man allows “Doggie” to work for him, but a string of awful misfortunes makes it, for a while, impossible for him to support her.

Many a theme receives attention in Wu Tianming‘s rich film:  childhood destitution, the ubiquity of injustice, the seeming need (when it is a need) for accepting fate, pariahism.  For all its dramatics, King is no masterpiece of drama—it needs a sturdier plot—but it is interesting and beautifully chaste.  It ends on sentimental note but it is also an affecting film.

(In Mandarin with English subtitles)

So Close To Greatness: The Movie, “So Close to Paradise”

0E6E27C3-322C-4A99-869D-2127CFD53546A terrific film noir produced in China, So Close to Paradise was made in the late Nineties, banned for three years by the Red government, and—hooray!—subsequently released in the U.S.  It didn’t make me think of Forties and Fifties Hollywood, though, but rather of the lofty Euro film of Antonioni and lesser artists, what with its angst, its silence and its careful visuals.  The “music” of the picture are the sounds of a tugboat, heavy rain, high heels on pavement and—well, sober tones.  Lamentably, serious cutting was done by the Chinese studio, but filmmaker Wang Xiaoshunai‘s talent still shines through.  The thin plot is quite digestible, and actress Wang Tong is lovely as she credibly plays a worldly nightclub singer.

A character called Gao Ping (Guo Tao), a man of greed and lust, is one of the film’s three losers.  The other two are Gao’s young pal Dongzai and Wang’s nightclub singer, Ruan Hong.  After his partner-in-crime makes off with Gao’s stolen money, Gao tracks down Ruan because she knows where the jerk can be found.  In fact he has to abduct her, and he rapes her.  Amazingly, the two become a couple (don’t tell the feminists).  Thereafter there is trouble.  Angst.  Also, however, the plot loses its hold on us (it did on me).  Only the technical sophistication begins to matter, but so be it.  I still had a good time with So Close to Paradise.

“Easy Living” Is Another Great Comedy Of The Thirties

Cover of "Easy Living (Universal Cinema C...

Cover of Easy Living (Universal Cinema Classics)

He had a literary source, but Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay for the 1937 film Easy Living (directed by Mitchell Leison), and one is pleased to note that as farce it is pure Sturges.  Sure, it’s devoid of the idiosyncrasy of The Palm Beach Story but is no less winsome than The Lady Eve as it tells of a woman, Mary Smith, mistaken for the mistress of a rich, married financier.  Business operatives are corrupt enough to lavish gifts on Mary in the hope that the financier will show them his good will.  He, however, is faithful to his wife, and in point of fact Mary meets and falls for the rich man’s independent-minded son.

The lines in the film offer no belly laughs but, in my view, the slapstick does.  The American Depression (never mentioned) contrasted with American wealth paves the way for such footage as the chaos-at-the-automat sequence.  With genteel ability, Jean Arthur (as Mary) supplies most of the pic’s charms.  Edward Arnold, I’m afraid, supplies the histrionics.  Leison deserves praise for his directing, but it is Sturges’s film.

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