Winning thirty-seven awards from around the world, Wu Tianming’s beautiful and evocative 1996 film, The King of Masks (Mandarin with English subtitles), is about the redemptive power of art. Lest this sound like a cliché, I want to remind readers that the idea of “redemption” is built upon a mercantile metaphor. Related to our word “emporium,” redemption is the act of buying back. Not coincidentally, the word “mercantile,” like “merchandise” and “mercenary,” is related to “mercy,” all coming from a Latin word for “wages.” So when I say that The King of Masks is about the redemptive power of art, I mean to suggest that religion, art, mercy, and merchandise conjoin to frame Wu’s impressive artistry.
The film’s eponymous protagonist, Wang, is an aging street artist in 1930s Sichuan, who, with the wave of a hand, makes delicate silk masks suddenly appear, then disappear, over his face. Hand-crafting the intricate masks himself, the childless old man worries that his secret art will die with him. He therefore purchases a statue of “The Goddess of Mercy,” telling the seller, “I want one for the giving of sons.” His merciful merchandise seems to work, for immediately thereafter, in a squalid marketplace, several women offer to give him their babies, hoping he can support them better than they. Seeing that the children are all female, Wang explains that he can teach his art only to a male. He prepares to leave the black market when a young voice calls out to him, “Grandpa!”
At this moment we are introduced to the second eponymous protagonist, an eight-year-old whose luminescent magnetism attracts not only viewers’ eyes but also all religious and artistic motifs within the film. Charmed as we are, Wang purchases the child for five dollars, ecstatic that he finally has a boy whom he can train to be the next King of Masks. Indeed, after querying about name and origins, Wang tells his merchandise, “Your name’s King now,” and he mercifully showers his apprentice with clothes and affection. We soon discover, however, that the child is already a king of masks, for the little boy so dear to Wang’s heart turns out to be a girl. Lest readers accuse me of ruining the plot, this revelation comes in the first quarter of the film. The story’s true interest lies in how the girl grapples with Wang’s resulting disgust and rejection, redeeming herself in his eyes only when she redeems him at the end of the film.
Significantly, both of the girl’s performances—as male and as redeemer—are foreshadowed at the film’s start. As Wang nestles his newly purchased “grandson” in his arms, the shot dissolves so that the child’s round face is superimposed on a round insignia on a stage backdrop. An actress then enters so that her head covers the insignia, creating a graphic match between the “he” and the “she,” aligning the little female-playing-a-male with the actress, Liang Sulan, who is actually a male playing a female: “the hottest female impersonator in Sichuan opera.” Earlier, we had seen Liang in a holy-day parade, carried on a lotus blossom float while portraying a “Living Bodhisattva,” the Buddhist term for a redeemer: a person who, upon attaining enlightenment, postpones Nirvana in order to help others attain it. Like the child, then, Liang earns a living by performing the opposite gender; however, unlike the child, Liang’s art is culturally-celebrated merchandise. Audiences understand that his “Living Bodhisattva” is only an act, but this act anticipates the child’s acts to follow—authentic acts that lead the child through the way of suffering in order to redeem her master.
Buddhist imagery weaves in and out of the film’s vivid tapestry. Immediately after his purchase, Wang gives thanks to a five-story high Buddha carved from the side of a mountain. Significantly, the Buddha sits next to the river upon which Wang lives and travels in a cramped houseboat. As Huston Smith notes in his classic work The Religions of Man (Harper & Row, 1958), “Buddhism is a voyage across the river of life, a transport from the common-sense shore of non-enlightenment, spiritual ignorance, desire, and death, to the far-flung bank of wisdom which brings liberation from this prevailing bondage” (153). Early in Buddhist history, Smith explains, two different means of crossing this river became distinguished: the Big Raft, or “Mahayana,” and the Little Raft, or “Hinayana.” Little Raft Buddhists emphasized individual enlightenment. One attains wisdom and the liberation of Nirvana through autonomous, self-forgetting meditation. In contrast, Big Raft Buddhism emphasized extending oneself to others in love and compassion. Rather than attempting to be an autonomous Hinayana saint, the Mahayana voyager worked to help others achieve enlightenment. The Big Raft ideal was the Bodhisattva, the person who vows not to enter Nirvana until all others attain it. And, as Liang’s performances confirm, Big Raft Buddhism “held a higher regard for the spiritual possibilities of women” (138), allowing for a female to become “a Living Bodhisattva.” The King of Masks, then, can be read as a parable about Big Raft compassion overpowering Little Raft autonomy—just as, in China, Mahayan Buddhism eventually overpowered the Hinayana (139).
Wang’s autonomy is emphasized early in the film when Liang asks the King of Masks to join his far more lucrative acting troupe. Wang refuses, saying all he needs is an heir that might take over his very individualistic art. Wang’s self-imposed isolation is signaled by the opening shot of the film when a heavy mist is parted by his solitary figure poling a boat on the river. The camera then cuts to a high angle long shot, emphasizing Wang’s smallness and isolation as he walks into town carrying a bundle on his back. Significantly, during the “Great Period” of Chinese art in the seventeenth century, the male form was most often depicted as a small figure within the vastness of a landscape: “Usually he is climbing with his bundle. . . or poling a boat—man with his journey to make, his burden to carry, his hill to climb, his glimpse of beauty through the parting mists” (Smith, 210).
Wang’s glimpse of beauty is the child he purchases and takes onto his cramped houseboat, affectionately nicknaming “him” Doggie. However, when Wang discovers Doggie is a girl, he ejects her from his small (c)raft. In desperation she clutches at his pole as he pushes away from the pier, but he pulls it out of her frantic hands and heads to the middle of the river. Refusing to give up, Doggie runs along the shore, dropping the money he has thrown her as she jumps in the water to follow him. Wang, an essentially kind-hearted man, dives into the river to rescue her from drowning.
In the next scene we see Doggie dressed in a pink girl’s jacket, sitting in the prow while Wang poles the boat at the stern muttering “stupid girl,” their genders separated by color and space. A long shot provides our first view of the boat from the side, making it look surprisingly big in comparison to all the foreshortened perspectives we were given previously. The pink-clad Doggie thus seems to be at the helm of a now-large boat, a Big Raft that we see glide by the huge mountainside Buddha. And so begins the journey of Doggie, an impersonator who eventually will perform the Living Bodhisattva.
Because she is no longer considered worthy—quite ironically—to learn the art of masks, Doggie becomes Wang’s servant. Cooking his food, cleaning his boat, and scratching his back, she event-ually wins his begrudging affection, and Wang takes her to see Liang perform “his famous role in attaining Nirvana.” In the opera, Liang impersonates a princess, the daughter of a king who has been sent to “the Buddhist hell.” Though a voice on stage states that “the Princess arrives on the Boat of Kindness,” we see her hanging on a rope above the stage, pleading for the life of her father, the king: “If you show no compassion, I shall cut this rope and fall into pit of death so that I may share my father’s suffering.” She cuts the rope, falls into the pit, but then, as she rises again with the king, she is greeted with a chorus chanting “Buddha of Infinite Qualities.” As the camera intercuts between the princess “turned into a god, like Bodhisattva” and Doggie in the audience watching with the King of Masks at her side, it foreshadows a redemption yet to come.
In the meantime, having seen the opera, Doggie starts to challenge Wang’s prejudice against females: “What do boys have that I don’t?” When Wang answers “Just a little teapot spout,” she angrily retorts “Does the [Bodhisattva] have a teapot spout?” Ironically, Liang, who plays the female Bodhisattva, does have a teapot spout. Doggie, undaunted, grabs the “Goddess of Mercy” statue that Wang purchased and yells, “Look, she’s got bosoms! Why do you worship her?”
Wang leaves the boat without answering, and the next scene continues with another challenge to Wang’s sexist assumptions. Doggie, now alone, takes Wang’s masks from their box—forbidden to her as a female—holding one too close to a candle as she places it against her face. Starting a fire that spreads to the boat, Doggie throws the box overboard to save Wang’s art from total destruction.
Though the fire might at first seem to fulfill Wang’s expectations about the inability of females to handle his art, the film’s religious imagery implies that Doggie has unwittingly instigated a process by which Wang’s Little Raft outlook might be burned away, so that it might be replaced with Big Raft Buddhism. Significantly, immediately after Wang returns to his smoldering though still intact boat, the camera cuts to Doggie sitting on a much bigger raft, hitching a ride down the river to escape Wang’s wrath.
She arrives in the city where Liang performed the Bodhisattva princess “rescu[ing] souls in strife,” and she proceeds to rescue a four-year-old soul in strife, the kidnapped grandson of a dignitary. Discovering that the little boy has “a teapot spout,” she takes him back up river on another large raft, surreptitiously leaving him on Wang’s boat—thus selflessly giving Wang the desire of his heart. Indeed, when Wang discovers the boy, whose name, Tianci, means “Heaven Sent,” he asks “Who’s your grandpa?” and the child responds with the words Doggie taught him: “The King of Masks.”
Even though, out of the self-denying goodness of her heart, Doggie has attempted to bless two people at once—Tianci with a loving caretaker and Wang with a grandson—her plan backfires when Wang is arrested for kidnapping. Doggie watches as Wang is led to jail by a rope around his neck, reversing the roles from their first meeting at the black market, when Wang discovered Doggie with a rope around “his” neck. However, while Wang “redeemed” Doggie through a mercantile transaction, she must now redeem him through a merciful transaction.
The distraught Doggie brings Wang’s “most precious things”—the hand-painted silk masks—to the dismal prison where he has been framed for all the kidnappings of the city, a framing that the director visualizes by putting Wang within a cell that is entirely framed by another cell. As the sobbing Doggie hands the masks to the King of Masks, a surly guard snarls to him, “Take them with you to hell to scare off the demons,” reminding us of another king, shown at the Sichuan opera, who was sent to hell.
Doggie, then, must act the role of princess daughter, sacrificing herself to redeem her king from hell. She seeks out Liang, who portrayed the princess Bodhisattva, but he tells her he can do nothing to save Wang: “We’re just actors, both of us. . . . We don’t count for much in society.” Liang’s grammar, at least in translation, makes it unclear whether by saying “both of us,” he aligns himself with the performer Wang, or with Doggie, who successfully acted “male” for a time. The ambiguity provides a clue, however, to how Doggie might redeem the King of Masks. Art might save art; craft might save craft.
Immediately after Liang’s defeatist statement about only being an actor, the camera cuts to another stage upon which Liang impersonates a female. Above the outdoor proscenium arch, however, we see Doggie on a balcony tying a rope to her foot. At the end of the show, while the actors and audience are socializing on stage, Doggie lowers herself on the rope, so that she is dangling upside down over them. She then yells to a state official, “General, the King of Masks is no kidnapper. I rescued the boy and took him to the King. . . . If you won’t help, I’ll cut the rope and die.” The general, who doesn’t want to get involved in local politics, disbelieves Doggie’s plea, and she cuts the rope. Liang lunges to catch the falling Doggie, rolling down a flight of stairs with her in his arms. The amazed general, witnessing Liang with Doggie’s limp body, states, “You live up to your nickname of the Living Bodhisattva. Though merely an actor, you have courage and character… I’ll take care of this matter.” Though the general addresses Liang, his pronoun—”you”—applies even more so to the other actor he faces, the unconscious Doggie in Liang’s arms.
Even this unconsciousness may be an act. The film leaves it ambiguous, as though to imply that, either way, Doggie’s risky act—in both senses of “act”—redeems Wang. Inspired by Liang’s art—an act portraying the Bodhisattva—Doggie does an act consonant with an authentic Bodhisattva, sacrificing herself to help the King of Masks reach enlightenment. Art redeems the artist.
After Wang is released, he is willing to sacrifice his Little Raft autonomy in order to fulfill Liang’s request about joining his troupe. But Liang, only an artificial Bodhisattva, confesses to Wang that “Doggie is your true savior.” The chastened Wang therefore returns to his boat where he teaches the artful Doggie his art, and in the last shot of the film we see both Kings of Masks—young girl and old man—holding the pole as they steer their houseboat together.
Wu Tianming has shown that art, especially performance art, can inspire merciful performances. And such can be said of Wu’s art as well. In an amazing example of life imitating art, the stunning Zhou Ren-ying, who plays Doggie, was herself abandoned at age three, saved from starvation by joining the Xian Acrobatic Troupe. Her parents, imprisoned on drug charges, reunited with their daughter only after The King of Masks made Zhou’s face famous. Hence, acting the part of a girl imitating the actions of a Bodhisattva, and inspired by the consummate artistry of the famous Chinese opera star who plays Liang (Zhao Zhigang), Zhou’s acting for a mercantile enterprise led to an act of mercy. Wu has imaged forth redemption both on and through a river of film.
Crystal Downing is Associate Professor of English and Film Studies at Messiah College.