Director Wu Tianming creates a real-life fantasy world as the stage for his film “King of the Masks”. With this backdrop, we follow the story of an eight-year old girl, Liu, as she struggles against tradition, adult authority, and the need to survive in her quest for a family. While her actions are grounded in real-world rules, her drama unfolds in a fantastic and mythological sense because of the world Tianming constructs.
A damp gray gloom hangs over the film’s set, creating a hard world, exposed to the elements, where a traveling performer must eke out a living from the kindness of strangers. Wrought with danger, this world includes an assortment of dangers including bullying soldiers, corrupt police forces, and roving abusive kidnappers. The protagonists must overcome these obsticals, which are physically stronger, with their wits. Granpa outsmarts the soldiers with a dazzling performance, Doggie uses her agility to escape her kidnappers, and Lady Bodivastta’s drama coerses the General with Doggie’s help.
These threats are made fantastic through the world’s prevalent mysticism and spirituality, enhanced through shrouding the scenery in a thick, obscuring mist. When Grandpa needs help finding a male heir, he purchases the statue of the Lady Bodihvastta so he may seek her grace. Later, when he finds himself very desperate, he seeks the insights of a wise woman who tells his fortune. A more practical movie would make her fortune ambiguous, but instead she tells Grandpa very specifically that he will have a boy and where to find him. Completing the fantasy, the old man miraculously finds a boy waiting on his boat with the name Tianci, translated “Heaven Sent”.
Yet this incident paranormal phenomenon actually serves to illstrate the film’s core theme of illusion. There are many cases of mistaken identities throughout the film. Grandpa mistakes Doggie for a boy, Doggie mistakes Master Liang for the goddess Lady Bodhisattva, Grandpa gets mistaken for a kidnapper after mistaking Tianci for a son sent from heaven, and the audience discovers Liu’s abusive “Daddy” was actually her kidnapper. Roles and identities in the film switch with the swiftness the King changes masks.
Thus we are presented with all the workings of a fable, filled with fantastic beings like the giant budha carved into the moutain, the changling in the form of Grandpa’s sleight of hand, fortuntelling oracles, and even an ephemeral goddess, who comes to Doggie’s rescue in the form of Master Liang in his Lady Bodhisattva costume. Throughout all of this, Doggie plays the hero, aquiring skills as a mythological hero aquires elixers and magical swords. The agility she aquires from Grandpa helps her escape her kidnappers with Tianci. The dramatic deception she learns from Grandpa and Liang help her win the General’s heart. In the end, family becomes her reward.