The King of Masks demonstrates that the relationship between one man (or one little girl) can be stronger than the most filial of relationships between a man and his own son. Perhaps only a foreign film like that of this caliber can touch so poignantly on the desperate, grinding poverty of 1930’s Sichuan while at the same time illuminating the traditional beliefs of ancient China that are very nearly held more dear than life itself.
It is a tale of timid hope and vivid transformation in the face of utter poverty and ancient values and does well to illustrate the King of Mask’s stubbornness for tradition and the established customs of China, even when he knows, and understands all too well, that his perseverance will lead to the destruction of his family heritage. But as the King himself admits, “every wall has its cracks.”
And thus the story begins. The King is lured by the charm salesmen on the streets that guarantee a son (buy, steal, birth…doesn’t matter). So, the King buys himself a token Bodhisattva charm and wields it like a water wand, in search of a grandson. He comes across Doggie, and thus begins a whirlwind relationship of desperation, fear, and humility, in a world where girls are virtually given away for free, even though there is no one who wants to take them. Not for any price.
Doggie becomes a profound character in the story and does well to highlight the main theme running throughout the film. When she is trying to understand the King’s strident beliefs, she brings up the philosophical issue about the negatable worth of women in society, and the contradiction that man worships the Bodhisattva as a goddess. While in fact, such a contradiction cannot exist, though the King is slow to recognize this because he holds his beliefs too strongly to admit such a thing.
Moreover, the Bodhisattva said that “luck and misfortune are intertwined.” Where the King thinks he has found luck by being able to buy Doggie on the black market (thinking he has found a true treasure indeed—a grandson), he instead must confront the inner misfortune of his own beliefs, that a girl cannot inherit his legacy because she is not a boy. And only boys can become the King of Masks.
In this struggle, the King must confront his own inner beliefs, and though he is hesitant, even unable, to do so, he instead finds the inner luck that only a girl such as Doggie can bring. It’s a filial love that cannot be broken, and it’s a bond that forever cannot be shaken. And even though tradition says it is wrong, the King comes to an inner respect for Doggie, even though she is a girl, and despite all odds.
It is a tale any culture can value and appreciate, and it is a tale that every culture should be responsive to. The King of Masks has proven more poignant than any film on the market today, simply because it is so vividly authentic and driven by characters that come to life on the screen. Where Doggie is transcendent, so too is the King as he confronts his inner contradictions about the value of women.