The King of Masks is a conventional melodrama whose dialogue has the stale ring of fortune-cookie aphorisms. Yet, as one character notes, you would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the plight of its protagonists.
The King (Zhu Xu) is a street performer in 1930s Sichuan who practices a rare, remarkable sleight-of-hand act that involves the quick changing of elaborate masks. Lacking a male heir to inherit his secrets, the old man is persuaded by a prosperous drag diva, to buy from a destitute farmer an eight-year-old named Doggie (Zhou Ren-Ying). The King is shattered when he learns that Doggie is really a girl but keeps her on as a servant. Doggie reveres the old man, but her curiosity about the forbidden art sets off a horrifying chain of events that lands her on the streets and the King on death row. To save him (and prove her worth as both artist and grandchild), Doggie makes a desperate, operatic sacrifice.
Wu has spent much of the last decade away from both China and the camera, which may explain the creaky plotting. He does, however, have an eye for vivid color and folk art, and makes deft parallels to contemporary China, where materialism trumps art, and girls are still of little value. But the power of the film lies in the performance of Zhou Ren-Ying, whom Wu disturbingly puts through some perilous stunts and whose character responds to all manner of abuse with heartbreaking emotional directness.