Name of Topic:
Write a film criticism of THE KING OF MASKS (1996), focusing on its theme
The film ‘THE KING OF MASKS’ is about love and second chances. Some parts of the movie were overacted but the general effect of the movie was an emotional one. The story of the movie is a typical one about children winning over the love and affection of older people, therefore, one would almost predict how the movie would end. The only twist it has is the fact that ‘Doggie’ turns out to be a girl – something the audience that the audience did not anticipate. However, the reaction of ‘Bian Lian’ on realizing this secret is not welcoming as it places the girl child in a very demeaning position.
The film tries to bring out the main theme as that of gender equity between the girl and boy child especially in the Chinese cultural setting. The role that ‘Doggie’ I forced to play is that of a boy, he even dresses like a boy when he was bought by the ‘king’. Even after the king discovers that Doggie is a girl, he is unable to give her up. He had the option of selling her off again or simply abandoning her but he did not, this is because Doggie cries as she explains that nobody wants her and that her former ‘buyer’ was an abusive man who used to beat her. She does all this because she wanted to feel accepted and loved.
China has been dealing with the issue of discrimination against the girl child since the time immemorial. Feminism in China did not exist until recently. According to Chinese tradition, male children were considered more valuable than female children were. Education was offered to boys and not to girls because girls stayed at home with their mothers to learn the skills of being good mothers and wives; a role that befitted them once they were grown. This culture is still practiced in some parts of China today.
There are families that choose to sell their children whenever they are facing or going through tough times. This has been practiced in China for a long time. The fight against the sale of children is still on going especially in the rural parts of China where it is highly practiced. These families cannot entirely be blamed for doing this. According to them, this way, their children will have a better future. These children are usually sold out to wealthy families.
In the film, it is noted that the girl child is clearly not appreciated. First, the king tells the police officer that if he were more fortunate he would have a grandson to help him perform. This is because of tradition that dictated that fathers were meant to pass down their skills to their sons and not their daughters. The film also depicts female children negatively. This is shown when Master Liang affirms, “no one values girls”. This part of the film also shows that no one cared and was willing to stand up for the rights of the girl child.
However, it is important to note that the film ends on a different note with the development of love between the king and ‘Doggie.’ Despite the fact that the king of masks is portrayed as a mean and sad old man, there is evidence of compassion in him. First, it is also apparent that he is lonely and needs to find an heir for him to pass his art of masks. When Doggie is willing to take her own life to save that of the king of masks, the king was deeply touched and saw no reason in abandoning the little girl.
Feminism has not always been present in China. Chen and Dilley say, “Feminism has been introduced into China from the West since the latter part of the 1980s” (202). This is probably why the film was set in the 1930s to show that women had their place in the Chinese culture. This place was in the kitchen. Women were expected to look after the home and bear children. They were not believed to be capable of doing anything that men did. There were certain practices that were believed t be done by men only like making and performing with masks, as shown in the movie.
This is why the king was disappointed when he learnt that Doggie was actually a girl and not a boy. He felt that his art and set of skills could be passed down to a girl, as this would be going against life-long traditional values and beliefs. In the province where the king lives, there is war and floods and parents are seeking to sell their children to anyone who is willing to provide a home for them. However, the king of masks “does not want the daughters who are thrust at him by their mothers; he wants a son” (stone, 59).
In addition, when the king of masks learnt that he had bought a girl and not a boy. As he had wanted, he started treating Doggie with so much bitterness and resentment. However, this did not deter Doggie from displaying her love and affection for the old man. She still called him ‘boss’ and performed her chores as expected. This began to change the king’s mind, he decided to teach Doggie martial arts, and eventually, he taught her the skill of making and performing with masks. This skill came in handy after the accident that meant that the king could no longer perform.
As much as the place of the girl child is poorly portrayed in the film, the film’s finale changes this aspect as the king of masks’ daughter proves herself a competent apprentice. The movie also shows advances in gender equality and the steady disappearance of Chinese high culture past. However, through the film, it can be seen that the king of masks tries to keep a very old tradition alive. This further proves that China has been trying to reclaim its past like the art of masks and Chinese opera. The opera singer in the film acknowledges the king of masks as the greater artist when she invites him.
The king of masks desperately needs a boy for the reason that Confucian tradition dictates that knowledge cannot be passed on to girls since they were regarded as permanent family members in traditional Chinese society. Confucianism has been defined as “a set of hierarchical kinship and rigid gender roles” (Rosenlee, 106). Girls were raised for marriage to other families. Boys grew up, stayed within the family, and maintained family resources. For performers like the king of masks, this meant secrets of the trade. However unfair this is currently viewed by contemporary Chinese men and women, it is still practiced in many Chinese provinces.
Chen, Huihua, and Whitney C. Dilley. Feminism/femininity in Chinese Literature. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002. Print.
Ebert R. The King of Masks. Retrieved from http://www.ebertfest.com/three/3king_rev.htm
Maslin J. The King of Masks (1996). Retrieved from http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9901E6DB143DF93BA15757C0A96F958260
Rosenlee, Li-Hsiang L. Confucianism and Women: A Philosophical Interpretation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006. Print.
Stone, Alan A. Movies and the Moral Adventure of Life. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007. Print.