The film King of Masks deals with and challenges the feudal idea that men are superior to women; this ideology, as the film portrays, results in alienation, tragedy and bitterness for girls in Chinese society and particularly the protagonist Doggie. In contrast, out of darkness, corruption, and poverty, the goodness of humanity and the human love sprung up from the master-apprentice relationship between Wang and Doggie will ultimately reign over narrow and backward traditional notions.
Evidence that everyone desires a boy can be found throughout the film. In fact, preference for boys over girls is not just a fad but rather deep-rooted in Chinese society. Feudal ideas that men superior to women is embedded and prevails in Chinese culture as early as the end of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B. C. ) during which Confucian teachings advocates and fosters gender inequality (Jiang 229). Under influence of Confucianism, women are given low status and expected to be obedient to husband.
This produces a sequence of expectations for men and women: men are expected to work outside and support family living while women only stays home and take care of family and household. This is also the reality in King of Masks, in which almost every man has a job: Wang is a street performer; Master Liang is an opera performer; Wang’s friend is a liquor dealer. However, the occupation of women is not clearly revealed. Notable examples are the crowds of women joining the parade and women from TianCi’s family whose main role is taking care of the child.
It is worth noting that Master Liang plays as a female impersonator. Despite its name, a female impersonator is played by a male in traditional Chinese opera because women are believed to corrupt men on stage and thus banned from performing (Johnson 380). The storyline of the film is triggered by Wang’s quest for a male heir to pass on his secret ancestral art of BianLian or its literally meaning of changing faces. In Wang’s conversation with Master Liang, he firmly states,” only a son may inherit [the skills]. It is an ancient rule. In fact, only son has the right inherit property including all Chinese secret skills and medical prescription. Also, in Chinese tradition, boys are expected to carry on the family line and occupation whereas girls leave and separate from the family after marriage. It is then not surprising that Wang worries that his secret skill may leak out and insist on passing it to a boy. The gender inequality that feudal and Confucian ideas bring about and gender biased Chinese traditions underlies the cruelty and unfair treatment from which girls and particularly Doggie suffer.
In the opening scene, the background music immediately creates a strong sense of melancholy and sadness. As Master Liang boldly admits that “no one values girls”, the society undeniably treats girls harshly. In the back alley black market, desperate parents beg to sell their daughters for very little value and yet still no one wants them. The fact that Wang paid ten dollars for Doggie is because he craves for a boy. When Doggie confesses that she was abused and sold seven times by different owners because they don’t like girls, audience can feel the bitterness and sympathize with her.
Indeed, girls like Doggie experience alienation and estrangement from society and its people, including the protagonist Wang. To further illuminate, we observe a sharp change in Wang’s attitude towards Doggie after he finds out that she doesn’t have “a little tea spout! ” Since their encounter, Wang enjoys being called “grandpa”; however, he asks Doggie to call him “Boss” when he feels betrayed by her. The intimacy between them dissolves; instead, emotional alienation and detachment begin to emerge. Doggie’s status changes from a beloved grandson to whom Wang determines to inherit his skill to a servant who only does housekeeping.
Also, the pitiless gender inequality contrasts strongly with the colorful and joyful settings like opera, firework, festival, and pipe-smoking ceremony. Aside from the pain that Chinese girls bear, King of Masks also reveals poverty, hardship, corruption, and darkness that Wang and Doggie experience in the world that they live in. The mist in opening scene and overall color tone of grey suggests that Wang is paddling into a world of dullness. With his houseboat- his only sanctuary- Wang travels around to make a living by performing Bianlian in return of donation from people who appreciate his art on the street.
Desperation and poverty are not only accompanying people in the slave market but also Wang: his wife left him after the death of his son; his only companion is not a human but a monkey. Master Liang’s confession that “ we all have our own sorrows” reflects the folk artists fate of twists and turns and bitterness. During one performance, Wang is intimidated and oppressed by soldiers, but he can only chant woefully “The dragon in the shallows is toyed with by the shrimp”. Many proverbs like this in the film convey to audiences his hardship and helplessness.
Government corruption is also disclosed in the movie when Wang is falsely charged of all kidnap cases and imprisoned. In his quest for an heir, Wang visits Buddhist temple to pray and buys a Buddha to worship in the hope that it may gift him a son. All Wang’s spiritual sustenance is on the Buddha body. This showed Wang’s inner weakness and helplessness towards his own destiny. Nevertheless, out of the darkness in this world, we witness the goodness of human nature. When Master Liang invites Wang into his theater troupe, Wang excuses himself from joining. This shows that Wang is man of independence and principle.
Besides, Wang scolds Doggie for stealing a bottle of wine, also showing his integrity. In the film, Master Liang is a popular opera star cherished by his followers; nevertheless, he upholds humbleness, and just like his stage name, Master Liang is indeed a “Living Buddha” with kindness and sympathy to Wang and Doggie throughout. It is also him who offers help and plays a key role in rescuing Wang out of prison. Even some insignificant character shows the goodness of human nature: the liquor dealer offers alcohol when Wang wounds; the prison guard allows Doggie to visit Wang.
King of Mask also portrays the sentimental love between an unrelated grandpa and unwanted child. In their early encounter, Wang treats Doggie as a treasure by buying new clothes, performing BianLian to entertain her, and telling her that “this is all yours” during a meal. We can also feel the sorrow and anguish in Wang’s heart when he knows that Doggie is abused by her previous owners. Along with the soothing music, when Doggie first attempts to scratch Grandpa’s back, the goodness of relationship immediately manifested.
At the same time, Wang shows his commitment to love as he throws his scratcher into water. In fact, their relationship develops not without some complications of the storyline. This initial intimacy between grandpa and grandson almost breaks when he feels betrayed by Doggie’s lying as a boy. Despite this, he jumps into the freezing water without hesitation to save Doggie and allows her to stay. While he trains Doggie of aerobics and Doggie does the housekeeping, he gradually learns that Doggie- without “a teapot spout”- is as competent as boys.
However, as one film reviewer describes, “throughout, sadness permeates [Doggie]’s every move, a reminder that acrobatic flexibility means nothing to a child throughout, sadness permeates. ” Indeed, what Doggie longs for is love and recognition. Throughout, Doggie wholeheartedly tries to please Wang. Even though there is some misunderstanding in place, she appreciates Wang’s love and caring by bringing the boy TianCi for him. As for Wang, he also cannot hide his missing of Doggie. He runs out immediately searching for Doggie.
When Wang is put into jail, Doggie is panicked and desperate, she begs for help by kneeling down in front of Master Liang’s house all night long. The film reaches its climax when Doggie ventures to sacrifice herself by performing an acrobatic feat that finally touched the heart of the military official. When Wang is condemned to death, Doggie comes to visit him in prison. In that scene, Wang and Doggie are physically separated by bars between them, but the camera moves closer to doggie as if death cannot separate them now.
This is soon followed by a touching moment when Wang and Doggie cries and hugs each other. It is not surprising that King of Masks finish with happy ending in which Wang inherits BianLian to Doggie and they live happily after. Beyond the surface, King of Masks reveals both the dullness and the goodness of human nature. Through the interaction between characters, audience can truly appreciate Master Liang’s saying “the world is a cold place but we can bring warmth to it”. Last but not least, the film praises the sentimental love between Wang and Doggie that touches the heart of every audience.