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Review by Jay Rittenberg

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Directed by: Wu Tianming
Written by: Wei Minglung
Starring: Zhu Xu, Zhou Ren-Ying, and Zhao Zhigang

The Kings of Masks is a perfect example of a new release on home video that a good deal of moviegoers will unjustly bypass the next time they're at their local video store. The reason? This deeply moving and heart-warming picture is a foreign film.

As we all know, subtitled films are not everyone's cup of tea, especially for those who only watch the latest high-octane, high-energy blockbuster that has made its way to the dusty shelves at the local Blockbuster. In addition, there will undoubtedly be a great deal of disappointment when this same lot sees the subtitles label on the this Chinese import (the film is in Mandarin with English subtitles) and discovers that this is not an early explosive work from Jet Li, Jackie Chan, or Chow Yun-Fat that is finally being made available to American audiences. For those of you who go out on a limb and pick this one up, you'll be rewarded with a wonderful period piece that works on almost all levels and will leave you choked up and teary eyed by the time the closing credits appear.

Chinese director Wu Tianming's film examines life in a particular part of China during the 1930s. It is here that we first meet Bian Lian Wang (a memorable turn by Zhu Xu), the King of Masks. Wang is an incredibly popular and respected street performer, who is magically able to put on and take off beautifully decorated paper masks at lightening speed. He is so impressive with his road act that he catches the attention of Liang Sao Lang (Zhao Zhigang), a celebrated opera star and female impersonator, who craves to learn the artistic secrets of the master's trade. Although honored by Lang's admiration, he kindly rejects his gesture and explains that his secrets may only be passed on to a male heir. Although Wang's only son had died many years ago, Lang encourages him to pass on his craft to someone so that generations to come may be prosper from it.

Wang soon comes to realize the importance of Lang's words and soon fears that his family's tradition of passing on customs will end with him. Desperate to find an heir, he visits several slave markets where families put their children up for sale simply to buy some food to survive. This is where he meets and decides to buy an 8-year-old child (Zhou Ren-Ying, with a winning performance), whom he lovingly calls Doggie.

Wang now truly feels that he's the king of the world since he's now got the male heir he's craved - or so he thinks! Unfortunately, the Luke Skywalker he thought he purchased turns out to be Princess Leia in disguise. This is not the kind of development that the master was counting on. This angers him and makes him want to get rid of the youngster, who has come to truly love him as a grandfather. Reluctantly, he allows her to stay on as a servant and starts to teach her his profession. She becomes not only a pro but a key component of his show. With time, the two become closer and although you'll never hear him admit it, he becomes quite fond of his precious little helper even though he still aches for a son teach his secrets.

The film goes through some heavy emotional terrain as Doggie searches high and low to deliver Wang his only wish, but in the process she gets her master in trouble with the local authorities, prompting her to try to save the day.

There's very little in this exquisite cultural examination that doesn't work; almost everything here is firing on all cylinders. Not only does director Wu Tianming do a great job of setting the mood of the times, but Wei Minglung's screenplay delivers a story about love and bonding that will make you shed a tear and rejoice as well. The authenticity of the wonderfully reconstructed sets and luscious costumes will make you feel like you've been transported to China during this time when street performers were regarded as artists instead of afterthoughts.

You're also bound to feel the sting of two accepted principles during this time: poverty so severe that children such as Doggie can be sold various times by different owners to help put supper on the table, and a harsh culture in which a male son is valued so deeply that a daughter's existence is scorned.

The film would simply not work as well as it does, however, if it didn't feature such wonderfully inspiring work from the two leads. Zhu Xu does a terrific job of portraying the crusty veteran of ancient secrets, who is too stubborn to come to his senses and look beyond his strict beliefs. We understand why he acts the way he does, especially when he discovers the truth about his special little helper. We choke up as much as he does when he finally opens up his eyes and his heart.

Young Zhou Ren-Ying, the feisty girl wonder, matches Xu step-for-step with a breakthrough performance as the loving child who will do whatever it takes to win Wang over. She is not only able to win his trust and love, but our admiration as well in the process.

The King of Masks is as powerful on the heart as it is rich on the eyes. A film that is certainly bound to stay with you like a wonderful memory long suppressed deep down inside that has magically found its way to the surface. Another good example of how love can truly conquer all.

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