In the twenty-first century a Chinese culture still seems to be as mysterious as ever. Theoretical knowledge can hardly help to understand it to the full extent; and after years of studying one can still encounter a concept that is difficult to grasp. Modern cinematography is also trying to develop public’s knowledge of this culture. By showing people some aspects of it movies can help to build a more holistic picture of the Chinese society. The movie “The King of Masks” is an hour and a half of unique emotional experience. The director has managed to depict the rich Chinese culture and take the viewers for a remarkable journey of hope, despair, distrust, perseverance, and love. The deep message of the film is gradually unfolding as new events either trigger questions or provide understanding to a previously posed dilemma. Throughout the whole movie there is a strong emphasis on the traditional dominant role of males in the society and values related to this concept, like obedience and filial respect. However, “The King of Masks” proves that despite deeply rooted cultural principles and gender roles true human love and care for each other is a driving force in changing those rigid rules into a harmonious relationship between people.
Traditionally, Chinese culture has a strong regard for a family. This is the direct influence of Confucianism that emphasizes family as a cornerstone of harmony in a society. Females in the family should be obedient and follow the males’ lead. The role of a father is a very important one and the children, especially girls, should be respectful and pious (Jung, 1996). This concept is one of the major threads running through the movie “The King of Masks”. The viewer is constantly reminded that the relationship between the father and the son is something special. No wonder that the main character Wang Bianlian, better known under the nickname of the King of Masks, desperately wants to have a grandson. Surprisingly enough, he buys a child from another man whose family was struck by the flood. Therefore, a kid becomes an adopted grandson; and the old man intends to pass his art to this young boy.
One can see how happy King of masks is to finally share his life with this semblance of a family. He is a very caring and supportive grandfather. For instance, when Doggie, his grandson, falls ill the man sells his family sword to buy medicine. They live on a boat and sleep together to be warm enough in these poor conditions. Even though they are rather poor the old man always makes sure that the child has enough to eat. However, the viewers should not be deceived by this care too much. Wang still remains a traditional Chinese father figure, who takes care of the child but doesn’t allow any excess freedom. The main role of the Chinese father is to educate a son and to make sure that the mother does not overindulge him (Ho, 1987). Of course, being the only caregiver, the King of Masks tries to fulfill his role as best as he can. Doggie has chores early on and is responsible for participating in the street performances with his grandson.
In the light of traditional Chinese culture it is not surprising that the family secret or an art can only be passed to a male heir. That is why Wang is very glad he can finally teach someone his famous art of making masks and performing with them in the streets. Because of that the whole audience feels sorry for him when the old man finds out that Doggie is a girl. The depth of his emotional suffering is visible through his bewildered face, his broken voice, and shaking posture. One can imagine what kind of thoughts might go through his mind. He was probably thinking of the money he spent on this worthless child and of the happiness she gave him and how it all turned into nothing in a blink of an eye.
People with different backgrounds watching this movie may well be shocked by the way female children are treated. This caring and supporting grandfather wants to cast the girl away at the same moment he realizes this awful truth. Her tears and a story of being sold eight times don’t seem to move him. However, he is not able to leave her. When the boat with Wang starts to pull off, the girl puts away the money he gave her and starts swimming towards the boat. Seeing that the girl might drown the old man saves her and allows her to stay. This is the first instance in the film where the traditions are challenged by the kind heart of a human being.
One can see how the roles of males and females are reinforced after this event. Doggie is now not allowed to call Wang a grandfather but is supposed to refer to him as Boss. She has more chores and responsibilities, like cooking and cleaning. Furthermore, Bianlian tells her to stretch her legs, stand on her hands, and do other kinds of tricks in order to perform together with him. The art of masks, though, is forbidden to her. The filial piety is the central part of their relationship. Doggie does every chore and task without any word or sign of discontent. She clearly accepts the existing treatment of girls and feels herself lucky to stay with the old man at all.
Another disaster strikes when Doggie accidentally burns one of the masks and the fire overtakes the whole boat. As the Bianlian’s home is destroyed, so is the final drop of his patience towards this girl. They go their separate ways and none of them is happy. Doggie is forced to live an extremely poor life, begging for food or stealing it. The king of Masks loses all happiness and satisfaction with life, accompanied only by his monkey. Both of them suffer from the broken family bond that they have created. Even in this period of separation the little girl remembers about her grandfather and loves him. When she finds a small boy and helps him to escape from captivity, Doggie brings him to Wang but doesn’t show herself. The old man is delighted to find a male child in his boat when he returns from the city. After finding out who brought him he runs out of the boat and shouts the name “Doggie” into the dark night. Here the viewers can once again observe how deeply he cares about her despite the traditional roles established by the society.
The most powerful and illustrative example of filial loyalty and simultaneously of challenging existing gender roles happens closer to the end of the movie. When the King of Masks is framed for kidnapping and nobody wants to look into the case Doggie does an amazing thing. She ties her leg with a rope while the other end of the rope is tied to the roof. Then she hangs upside down from that roof with her leg tied and asks a general of the army to help her grandfather. She tells him that she will cut the rope and die if he refuses. The general doesn’t believe her, however, and starts to move away when the girl takes out a knife and cuts the rope. Luckily, she is saved by a man who catches her. This action does have positive result and the old man is eventually released from the prison. Love for her grandfather and deeply rooted values of traditional Chinese society make this girl blind to injuries, poverty, and despair that she is forced to go through. This perseverance and faith in what she must do is absolutely admirable and rare quality.
Finally, the King of Masks realizes that Doggie is the best family that he could ever have and there is no difference whether she is a boy or a girl. When they meet after his prison he hugs her and asks her to call him grandpa again. This touching scene vividly reflects how deep affection for a young girl wins over the desire to have a son and to teach him the art of masks. The old man eventually understands that in the end of the day the gender of a child does not really matter. What matters is love, respect, and piety — the values that are at the very core of the Chinese culture. Realizing all this he decides to pass his art of masks to his granddaughter.
One can see how through a difficult life story of an old street performer and a little girl the traditional Chinese family and fatherhood principles are depicted. As it often happens in life, real relationships between people can hardly be put into rigid frames. They change and evolve depending on a number of internal and external factors. “The King of Masks” is one of the great examples of how despite rules, norms, historical times, or socio-economic status people can still remain sensitive and sympathetic towards each other.