A fable about rising above prejudice and sexism in China
When was the last time you watched a fabulous Chinese movie with English subtitles that was beautifully filmed, empowering to women and girls, and also based on a true story? If you’re anything like me, your answer would be, “Is that even possible?” It’s not only possible, it’s been done. Brilliantly. The King of Masks (1996) is enthralling in its production value and story line. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that this movie would be a hit for just about any adult or younger family member (who can read the subtitles)—male or female.
Here’s the story: Street performer Wang (played by Zhu Xu) is known as “The King of Masks.” He performs Sichuan Change Art, which utilizes a series of mask tricks and acrobatics that is truly impressive. But Wang, who lives on a houseboat and travels from town to town, is growing old. His wife left him with a young son who later dies. He longs to pass on his art to an heir in the time-honored tradition that was handed down to him. The problem is that the heir must be a boy.
Wang attempts to purchase a little boy, despite the fact that boys are so much more valuable than girls and there truly aren’t any available. There are girls aplenty, of course, given the patriarchal preference in China for boys over girls. (Just as an aside and to make this movie even more relevant, that bias has resulted in the aborting of millions of female fetuses so that now there are estimated to be nearly 20 million “missing” females, making it difficult for young Chinese men to find suitable mates. Hence the trafficking of girls has increased dramatically in China in the past decade or so.) Wang finally finds the eight-year-old “boy” he is seeking and buys him. I’ll bet you can guess what happens next. We quickly learn that the “boy” is not a boy at all, but a little girl. And this little girl, Doggie (played by Zhou Ren-ying), who has been found out and sold many, many times before, now must go to extraordinary lengths to prove her worthiness to Wang who was, at first, very loving to her.
The plot includes a Chinese drag queen, generals, a tame monkey, and some amazing street performances. I’m not going to tell you any more than that. Watch this movie. You won’t be disappointed.