WTF ASIA 178: The King of Masks (1996)

Even in the 1930s, masking up was important.

The King of Masks (1996) - IMDb

Available in the United States and…seriously? That’s it? Well, perhaps a few other countries.



Wang lives on a boat, which on the river by the city. In his sixties, he is all alone, with only his pet monkey called General as a companion. No one seems to take notice of him as he walks with his head down through the city streets.

In the evening, though, the crowds gather around to see him. For Wang is the King of Masks.

Right the on the street, adults and children alike marvel as the King of Masks tells stories of the ancients. And more, importantly, amaze them with his art. What is his art. Well, we shall find out in a little bit.

The city is full of celebration tonight. At a restaurant, local Bureau Chief Huang greets General Liu, who has come from wherever to take part in the festivities. Nearby, a young woman introduces her little son Tianci to his grandparents. Okay, I am sure that these people will be important to the story at some point.

The procession goes through the city. Among them is Master Liang, whom we learn through a rather awkward exposition dump, is the most renown female impersonator in Sichuan opera. As the Living Bodhisattva, Liang is carried through the street on a type of ceremonial lotus throne. Young women run up to touch the throne in hopes of it granting them healthy sons. Liang has to remain calm while basically being mobbed, but takes notice of the King of Masks off to the side, entertaining what looks like at least a hundred people.

So why is Wang called the King of Masks in the first place? Because Wang means King. Haha…Well, aside from telling stories, his main draw is the art of Biàn Liǎn, or face changing. He puts on masks, and changes them immediately without anyone noticing how he does it. It is likely that the masks are all hidden in his headgear. But like with a magician, it is the willingness of the viewer to both appreciate the skill and let oneself dwell in the uncertainty that makes the performance so enjoyable. Even Liang gets caught up in it from such a distance away. Eventually, the performance ends and the crowd disperses. That is when Liang approaches Wang to give him a coin. Wang is amazed and humbled for Master Liang to even notice him.

Liang and Wang meet for tea the next day. Liang really butters him up, calling Wang the performer’s performer, and claiming to have never seen anything as marvelous as his art in either Peking, Shaanxi, or Sichuan opera. Well…it is pretty cool, I guess. I guess that Wang sees what Liang is getting at and humbly replies that his “meager” skills can be taught only to his son as per an ancient rule. Liang denies trying to steal Wang’s secrets, only to recruit him for a troupe. Again, Wang turns down the offer, saying that he is used to his solitary ways. Liang asks if Wang has a disciple and Wang silently looks down. Eventually, he acknowledges that his art will probably go to the grave with him. Liang apologizes for being so callous and accepts that Wang has decided his own course. Wang gives thanks for Liang’s patronage and calls them even. He also calls Liang a brother. Liang expresses surprise at that, claiming to be only a minor character and half a woman; thus unworthy of such a title. This time, Wang apologizes. Liang is not bothered; we all have our own sorrows. Liang leaves, but not before telling Wang to find an heir.

Once again, Wang wanders through the city alone. He buys a figurine that will bring him a son and walks through a…um…child-market. Little girls and their parents approach him, offering to cook and clean for free. Wang rejects them; he wants a boy. One mother comes up to him with a baby boy, but Wang says that he is too small.

Wang is about to leave when a child calls out to him. He turns around to see a boy looking right at him and calling him grandpa, not with desperation, but with confidence. It is not a request, but a statement of fact. Wang walks up to the boy and asks for his age. The boy’s father says that he is eight-years-old, and claims that he is selling his son due to the floods. He asks for ten dollars and Wang refuses. He walks away, even when the father says five. He stops only when the boy calls out to him again. All right. The boy will be his male heir. A male heir named Doggie.

After getting the kid some new clothes and something eat, Wang brings Doggie to the boat…and General. And, most importantly, his magic masks, which scare Doggie.

Doggie wolfs dowhis dinner, which kind of concerns Wang. Take your time, kid; no one is going to take it from you. Wang asks where Doggie lives. Here. But where is Doggie from? A place under floodwater.  Oh dear. Okay. Surname? Liu, according to the father.

Wait. Father? That man at the market sold his own son so stoically? No, he must have been a slave trader. Wang then sees bruises Doggie’s arm. Dang. Wang calls Doggie’s father a heartless bastard. Doggie starts to cry. and Wang hugs his grandchild, promising that such abuse will never happen again. Doggie’s name is no longer Liu. It is Wang…but still Doggie

Exposition time, though less awkward this time around. While adjusting a mask, Wang tells Doggie that his wife left 30 years ago because he was too poor. That left Wang with a baby. Wang acted as a mother and father to the boy until he got sick and died at age ten. And Wang has been alone ever since. And one day, he too will die. Doggie asks him not to die. Wang laughs; it is not as if he wants to, but he has little choice in the matter. And had feared that there would be no one to carry on the family line or the tradition. Now, that will have to be Doggie. Well, Doggie wants to learn the “change-face” opera. Good. Wang will teach Doggie…and only Doggie. It is not for outsiders or girls.

And then, Wang gets his backscratcher. Doggie displays added value by scratching Wang’s back.

It is night time and Doggie…uh…needs to go to the bathroom. The kid tries to avoid waking Wang, but it cannot be helped. Still in bed, Wang tells Doggie to just pee off the front of the boat.

Doggie claims to comply, but instead…goes onto the land. And squats.



oh dear…

Even General appears surprised, but Doggie shoes him away.




Doggie gets sick one day and Wang goes to buy medicine. He does not have enough money, so he goes to a pawn shop (before it opens) to sell a sword that had been in his family for generations. The shop owner offers him two dollars and almost closes the door when Wang starts to protest, but Wang accepts the offer.



The medicine is unpleasantly bitter, but Doggie drinks it up.

Master Liang is getting ready to be photographed when Wang arrives and introduces Doggie as his grandson. Liang congratulates Wang and offers to have them both be photographed. Wang hesitates, but Liang insists. So…they get their picture taken.

While walking back through the city, Wang and Doggie come across some sort of challenge thingamee. Someone pays money to try to cut a stick of bamboo from top to bottom before it falls, touching only the knife. Of course, Wang does it easily. So he tries it again. They guy who tried before him (and failed miserably) hits him with a slingshot, making him drop the blade on his foot.

Doggie runs to him. Is he okay? Bleeding, Wang tells Doggie to get some wine from the seller down the street. Luckily, the seller is friendly and even personally brings a bowl of wine to Wang. Wang puts some of the wine in his mouth and spits it on his foot. Then he tears a piece of his shirt, dips it in the remaining wine, puts it on a bamboo stick, and tells the wine seller to set it on fire. And then he tells Doggie to pee on it.


Yes, pee on it. It needs boy’s urine.

Doggie starts to panic. Wang doesn’t understand what the problem is. This is serious and Doggie can’t do it? Doggie starts to tear up. And finally admits it: I’M A GIRL!

Doggie cries. Wang starts to cry too.

The concoction did not work, but Wang walks off anyways. Furious at Doggie and her “father” for having fooled him. Furious at himself for being fooled for so long. Furious at himself for getting his own hopes up. Doggie follows him, but Wang wants nothing to do with…her. So young and yet such a crook. Doggie insists that she is not a crook. She tells him that she had been sold seven times. And they all abused her. Only Wang treated her like family, and only because he thought that she was a boy.

Wang says that he will not sell her, but he cannot keep her either. He tosses her a bag of coins and prepares to take his boat down the river. Doggie begs him to let her stay. She promises to cook and clean and scratch his back, similar to the other girls in the child market.

Wang starts going down the river and Doggie runs after him from the shore. In a fit of desperation and despair, she runs into the water. Wang may not want her, but he does not want her to drown either. So he jumps off the boat, grabs her, and takes her to the shore.

It is unclear how Wang got back on the boat, but he did. And Doggie is there too. Wang calls her a leech and tells her to stop calling him Grandpa. He is Boss now, and she will have to work hard to be allowed to stay. Doggie accepts. This work is not just cooking and cleaning, but learning acrobatics, like the monkey.

Eventually, Doggie is good enough that Wang has her perform on the street for crowds.

Wang is performing his routine when a Nationalist soldier tosses him a bunch of coins on a string. When Wang takes the coins, the soldier steps to him and demands to know the secret in return. His three comrades repeat the demand. Wang says that he will never sell his family secret. Okay, the trooper would never bully him. So just give back the money and they will be on their way. Wang does not quite understand, so the soldier starts hurling insults. So Wang gives back the string of coins, only for the soldier to claim that he had given two. Another soldier yells at Wang. They are fighting for this country, going off to war tomorrow, and will probably die soon. And this street monkey will not let them save face in their final moments.

Doggie starts yelling at the soldiers. Her master will teach his art only to his son, not to girls or outsiders. Wang will not even show her. Why would he teach a bunch of jerks?

The four are about to converge on her when Wang steps in. Fine. He will destroy his living just to make them happy. So, he lets them stand right up to him and performs his mask tricks. And…that is it, he says; it is all in the hands. They just need a few weeks of practice and they can be as good as him. Well, since they cannot admit to not having learned the trick without looking like chumps in front of the crowd, the soldiers play along and even give Wang the string of coins again.

It is the evening and the pair leave for the boats. Doggie asks for confirmation: he did not really show them, did he? Wang chuckles. Probably the first time that he had come close to smiling at her in private since her admission. Well…it is something. And for now, it will have to be enough.      








This movie is directed by Wu Tianming, who was part of China’s Fourth Generation of directors and a mentor of sorts to Fifth Generations directors like Zhang Yimou. He went to the United States as a visiting scholar in 1989 and, after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, he decided to stay away for a little longer. King of Masks was the first film that he made after his return. Though this movie does not really make any overt political statements, the struggles that Wang faces to keep his art going may kind of reference Wu’s own frequent clashes with members of the government trying to reign him in. And, regardless, I gather that the movie was screened for only three days in China. The struggle continued.

It may be a little bit of a stretch to connect Chinese movie-making with either the art of Biàn Liǎn or Chinese opera in general. If I can find Ann Hu’s film Shadow Magic streaming online, then maybe I could talk about this further. Still, Wu’s own start in the film industry turned sour due to the Cultural Revolution. So it was fairly easy for him to imagine Chinese film culture being tossed aside along with more ancient traditional arts.

Of course, greater society is not solely responsible for the seemingly inevitable destruction of Biàn Liǎn. For sure, people seem to love Wang and his performances, but that love has not translated into money. And this is not simply a problem in the 1930’s; it was bad at the turn of the century. And even if he had tried to supplement his meager earnings from that with money from another job, it was obviously not enough. And his wife abandoned her own baby son to leave him. Or maybe Wang was so set on having an heir that he held onto him and drove her away. And, yet, he ultimately could not protect his son, his heir, the only one who could inherit his art.

Perhaps it was Wang’s grief and remorse that prevented him from remarrying or siring more sons. As much as he was a stickler for the trappings of the tradition, perhaps part of him felt that his art had driven his wife away, condemned him to a life of poverty, and killed his son. It is all that he has in his life, but he is okay if no one else would be condemned to this life either. It was only after Master Liang implored him to find an heir that he went looking. And that is when he found Doggie, two years younger than his son was when he died. This would be his heir. And yet…

So, other than the opera, what is another supposed ancient Chinese tradition? Of course, vastly preferring sons over daughters. That Wang’s art can be passed only to sons may be a convenient excuse for his sexism, it is a sexism that pervades so much of society. The throng of women rush Master Liang’s throne not out of devotion to the Living Bodhisattva, but because they believe that touching the throne will help them bear a son. It seems that so many of the children being sold at the child market are girls. Girls have no value outside of being wives to men and mothers to boys. So what use would Wang have for a kid like Doggie? Nothing. And Doggie knows that.

Doggie has already known the worthlessness of being a girl. But being a boy? I guess that in taking the role, she gained enough false confidence to convince herself that Wang was her…uh…his grandfather…and to convince Wang of that as well. As a boy, Doggie found worth that she never had as a girl. And security. And love. But it was based on a lie. And while she could make herself forget here and there, she always knew. Behind the confidence and complacency, she was terrified. Always.

The secret was revealed in perhaps the most stressful and humiliating way possible. At that point, it might as well have been all over. She was back to worthless. What could she do? Rail against the sexism of society at eight-years-old? Call out the old man for his old-fashioned sexist mindset? She had nothing but him and he would leave her to fend for herself in a hostile world. Wang may have had little, may have been next to nothing, but she had nothing and was nothing. She had no choice but to beg him to accept her as nothing, to take his insults as if he were just another abusive owner. And to obey him like a dutiful filial child, even though he would never treat her as such. She was on the backfoot and had to prove herself worthy of…well, not his love, but of his not letting her die alone on the street.   

Well…that is kind of grim. Uh…how about I switch topics?

The Chinese title of the film is Biàn Liǎn, which roughly translates to Change Face. This is, of course, a direct reference to Wang’s artform, but it could be used to describe many aspects of identity in the film. I will start with Wang. He is a performer, which requires him to take on the role of a storyteller, along with roles within his stories. When he performs for a crowd, he is happy and boisterous. He is the master. He is lively. He is alive. But when he is just Wang, he is alone, he is scrunched over, he is practically anonymous. He lives on a boat, which may allow him to wander off alone, free of anyone finding him. He was once a husband and a father, but he had long since accepted that he would die without a family. That is, until he meets Master Liang.

For centuries, opera had been one of the main forms of entertainment in China for the rich and poor. Master Liang carries on the tradition in Chinese Opera of men performing specifically as women. I guess that this could be seen as similar to acting troupes in Shakespearean times or something. A reason for not allowing women to perform was that it was considered unseemly for men and women to interact so freely on stage. I think that this was put in place during the Qing Dynasty, which was founded in 1644. A similar taboo had traditionally often prevented women from even viewing plays. There were, of course, exceptions. And during the late era of the Qing and especially after its fall in 1911, women started taking roles in opera. Still, the status of the female impersonator was held in high regard. After all, it is easy for a woman to act as a woman. But for a man to successfully pull off pretending to be a woman enough for the audience to look past the discrepancy? That was art. Not quite gender fluidity, more pragmatic gender role transgression that became enshrined.

Having gained the status of an important celebrity, Master Liang has been able to live quite comfortably playing these opera roles. But how much of this is a role and how much of it is Liang’s own identity? Out of costume, Liang dresses in a masculine manner, but behaves in a gentle manner that could be considered feminine. Master Liang also uses the term “half-a-woman” when turning down Wang’s invitation to be called a brother. Is this a sincere belief on Liang’s part? Is it merely a way to be polite? Is Master Liang comfortable self-identifying that way? Is it how Chinese society sees people like Liang? Is it just the writers and the director imposing their own beliefs about gender-identity on the character? Is it a…mistranslation in the subtitles? I don’t know. I am pretty sure, though, that this ambiguity would be heavily frowned upon on Chinese TV now, thanks to recent rules barring depictions of insufficiently masculine men.

And what of cis women? And girls? Again, misogyny was rampant in the 1930s. So the only way for seven-time-sold girl to gain a family was to act as a boy. From an unwanted girl, Doggie turned into a boy. Doggie was never truly comfortable acting as a boy, but had to put up a front. So she did. And she probably would for as long as it was feasible. Of course, it turns out that it was not feasible for very long. From a beloved boy, Doggie turned back into an unwanted girl, but managed to take on the role of an underling. And while not a protégé of Biàn Liǎn, she was able to take part in the performance, both as a hype…uh…girl…and an acrobat. I am guessing that the actor who played Doggie and the monkey were trained acrobats, just as how the actor who played Master Liang was a professional opera performer. I cannot say how much the movie’s stance that they deserve dignity and security were undermined by how they were treated in real life.  

The identity of China itself was changing in the 1930s. It had been two decades since the fall of the Empire and the Kuomintang Nationalist government was only recently able to sort of establish itself as the rule over local warlords and the Communists. Meanwhile Western influences had been seeping in through continued colonialism and the Japanese military was making big plays for conquest. Hence, the soldiers. Whatever was still left of the status quo would not hold for very long. The movie does not say whether the opera or Biàn Liǎn specifically would survive the War or the Revolution. The movie does not even say whether the characters would. It is more how they approach the art, themselves, and each other.

We do see that Wang is quite religious…or spiritual…or superstitious, however you want to interpret it. So, his beliefs are not simply going to change by a simple lecture. It is unclear whether he would view the increasing presence of female performers in opera as a corruption of the art as opposed to a development, but he has no intention of something like that happening to his art on his watch. To him, he would disgrace the art and, in turn, disgrace himself. How could he…face…himself, if he did?

Okay, so Face means something else in Chinese. Like the term “saving face” that is the title for an Asian American movie. It is a whole thing, but it is mostly about one’s dignity, pride, and reputation. So, not a totally alien concept to the West, though kind of intricate. It is often an issue of public perception, but it is also a private and personal thing. Usually, when there is a problem, one has to act in a way that allows one’s superiors in the social hierarchy to save face, sometimes in the form of crediting them for what they did not do or taking the blame for things that were their fault. Sometimes, the superior may reciprocate in order to appear magnanimous or merciful. And that, in turn may, give that person a reputation for generosity. Part of that is why Master Liang and Wang are so cordial and humble when conversing. Master Liang may be better off financially, but Wang is older. And that still counts for something. There is a mutual respect and a sense of peerage. Wang may suspect that Master Liang may be trying to poach him in order to make money off of him as well as co-opt competition while stifling his independence, but he would never dare say that. Nor would Master Liang outright call Wang a lowly street performer who should jump at such a generous and possibly life-saving offer.

Of course, there are situations where this gets…complicated. Those army boys are obviously bullying Wang. But no one can do anything about it; after all, they are ostensibly defending the people…and they have guns. Still, when Wang refuses to degrade his art by indulging them, they pull the face card. Even though they were the ones trying to humiliate him in the first place. Of course, he turns the tables on them by pretending to grant their request, ostensibly letting them save face. Yes, everyone knows that he tricked them, but the soldiers cannot outright accuse him of deceit or else they risk losing face altogether and looking like fools in front of an increasingly unsympathetic crowd. Of course, it does not help that they got scolded by a poor little girl.

Speaking of the poor little girl, girls like Doggie are granted no face to save. She is treated like trash and everyone expects the worst from her. She tries to prove herself as more than a mere nuisance, but the results are…mixed. Still, perhaps she should not need to do all of this in the first place. Should she not be worthy of being valued and loved? Or, heck, taught the thing that she wants to learn? Yes, traditions are how they are for a reason, but maybe, like with the concept of Face, certain aspects of them should be reevaluated once in a while at the very least. If an artform, or people, are to survive the future, they may have to adapt.

I gather that this movie was released with a 91-minute cut. I am not sure how much was cut, but I can imagine a couple shots that got cut. In any case, the full version should be streaming. And it is a good movie…yeah.





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