Monday, June 27, 2016

The King of Masks (movie review)

A touching, well acted masterpiece I thought (as did many critics), and an eye opener.  What a perfect film to start on Gay Pride Day, given the focus on gender, starting with the hermaphroditic figure of the Living Bodhisattva, an actor cast in both male and female roles inside of traditional Chinese theater.

Judging from the cars and uniforms, the film, made in the late 1990s, was set in the 1940s or so.  We're given few hints, and this story could play against many historical backgrounds.

The King of Masks is an old man with no family, in possession of a stage magician's secret, something to monetize through street theater gigs.  He's able to change masks in the blink of an eye and even with an omniscient camera we don't quite see how he does it.

The King is experienced and quite successful at running his racket, and never has to beg, steal, or surrender his dignity to make his own way in the world.  He even owns his own boat.  If this had been California in the 1970s, he could have been on Johnny Carson and made a mint in Vegas.

However he has no heir to carry on his lineage.  His prosperity would be so much greater if only he had an heir, and the Living Bodhisattva, appreciating talent when he sees it, encourages him to find one forthwith, as the clock is ticking.

The issue of gender really kicks off the story at this point, as Grampa is just as brainwashed as his compatriots when it comes to thinking of girls as worthless / unworthy.  He has a fixed picture in his mind that his heir must have a "tea spout" (a penis).

We can hardly blame him for this, as the bullies around him are mostly pricks and dicks, par for the course in patriarchal societies.  More matriarchal societies present their own cans of worms, right?

A subtext in this film is the attitude of secular militarists towards the quaint customs of an earlier China.

Sure, they like the songs and nostalgia, and appreciate the self control religion instills in true believers, but like in war, it's really all about theater.  They're cynical about Buddhism because they know it's all show business.

The young girl heroine ("Doggie') cooks and cleans for the King of Masks. He has become her boss, reluctantly at first, having inadvertently purchased damaged goods, as he sees it.  Ever enterprising, she at first experiments by stealing for him, but he rejects this type of support, showing character.

Having accidentally trashed the boat on one occasion she tries to make it up to him big time, by actually finding him a real boy heir. Her exploit this time involves a daring and athletic rescue from an orphanage.

However this "orphanage" was operating without a license, and was actually more of a kidnappers' den.  The King, by twist of fate, winds up in jail for kidnapping.

The police have no motive to believe his unlikely tale, that "Doggie did it" and intend to pin all outstanding missing kid cases on him, a convenient way of placating their public.  Grampa becomes fatalistic and morose, with just days to live.

This is about when, if there is a Living Bodhisattva out there, we could sure use one, but we only have all these theater actors playing out their assigned roles (police and army included).  The chips are down for Grampa.  He's preparing to face his karma.

I watched the film in two sittings, up to this cliffhanger, and then the conclusion.

My guest this time was an out-of-towner, a wandering vagabond (though not without coinage) and into Chinese studies among other things.  She had ventured to this neck of the woods from quite a bit further north and was finding Portland, near the 45th parallel, uncomfortably hot (around 88 Fahrenheit these days). I hope she finds the coast more agreeable, weather-wise.