The King of Masks (1996) Image credit: imdb 

This is a film about the traditional Chinese dramatic art of “bian lian” (face-changing or mask-changing), but it is also a film about the life of common people and the history of China in the 1930s.

In Sichuan, an old street performer nicknamed “Bianlian Wang” (King of Masks) makes a living from spontaneously performances of mask-changing, leading a rather humble and impoverished life on a river houseboat. The exquisite art he has mastered is in fact an important component in Sichuan opera and much appreciated by the leading artist of a famous opera troupe. Unwilling to share the secret of mask-changing, which is passed only from father to son, Bianlian Wang declines the artist’s offer of joining the renowned troupe. Instead, he decides to adopt a son/grandson to pass on his art. The series of interaction and exchange between the adopted child Doggie and Bianlian Wang make a very touching and insightful story. I am refraining from telling further details so as not to spoil your experience of the film.

Three aspects of this film impressed me tremendously: 1) the dialogues are succinct yet with quite a lot of idiom and slang. They are humorous and perfectly fitted to the speech of the characters. 2) The film is also a solid work of cinematography. Many scenes are carefully designed. For example, when the Bianlian Wang tries to leave the child and rows his boat away, the camera cuts to a low angle, with the feet of barge hauler in foreground and the boat in background. This interesting scene not only blends in a social context, but also implicitly comments on the event happening in the scene. 3) Though the message about inequality between men and women (sons and daughters) seem to be rather commonplace today, the film was in the vanguard of commenting on this, and in very humorous way.

One further note on the traditional art of mask-changing. It has been relished and known to most people in China. Some of the techniques are still “trade secrets” but the art is not restricted to the few families nowadays as depicted in the film. A few ways of face-changing are revealed (probably to attract people to learn about the art).: for example, the very essence of mask-changing is sleight of hand, quickly pulling down pre-attached masks or dragging greasepaint hidden in sideburns. Still, being able to perform mask-changing takes a lot of practice in both the techniques and the operatic form.

Finally, this film will be a good lead-in for the film screening of Songs of Phoenix (2016) this month happening at Purdue, a later work from the same director and also focuses on the passing on of Chinese traditional art. I actually re-watched this film for hosting the film screening!

Info: The King of Masks (1996)

Dir. Wu Tianming

Perf. Zhu Xu (Mask-changing master), Zhou Renying (Doggie), Zhao Zhigang (famous Sichuan opera performer Liang Sulan).

Writer: Wei Minglun


Full movie available on amazon video, free for prime members

A lower quality version is available on youtube

A video of Mask-changing Art

*This film is suitable for children to watch as well.