In 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)