The King of Masks

The International Cinema kicked off its Karmen Smith series with The King of Masks, a Chinese film that explores tradition and the conflicts that arise in defying it.

The King of MasksPROVO, Utah (Feb. 17, 2014)—With previews for summer blockbusters already upon us, it is easy to forget that not all movies are all about intense action and special effects. Some of the most moving and important movies of cinema are as simple as the quiet protagonists they center on. Though these men and women lead humble lives, their actions have a profound effect on those they interact with and their audience.

As part of its Karmen Smith series, the International Cinema (IC) presented one such story – The King of Masks – with Steven Riep, associate professor of Chinese and comparative literature, introducing it.

The movie tells the story of Wang, a master of “biàn liǎn,” or “mask changing,” the art of instantly changing masks without using hands. This theatrical style is unique to the Sichuan province of China and is passed from father to son. Wang, an old widower, has no son to pass his secrets onto, and so adopts a young boy as his grandson, whom he calls Doggie. He soon discovers that Doggie is actually a girl, and therefore ineligible as an heir according to tradition. The film follows Wang’s struggle against tradition and Doggie’s fight to make a place for herself in a society that has made no room for her.

The King of Masks was directed by Wu Tianming, an influential Chinese director who died last year. Wu was a member of the Fourth Generation of Chinese Cinema (in relation to the birth of the People’s Republic of China) and was known for his “politically incorrect” films which clashed with the central government. This conflict culminated in his exile from China in 1989, following which he lived in the United States. He returned to China in 1996 and returned to filmmaking, directing The King of Masks, one of his last films.

Despite the success of his films, Wu was most influential as the head of a film studio. He promoted experimental films and helped jumpstart some of Chinese cinema’s most important names. Directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige owe much of their success to his mentoring.

With Wu’s reputation, The King of Masks makes a fitting installment in the IC’s current lineup. The film is the first of a series of IC films to be shown in respect to Karmen Smith, who passed away in September 2014. Smith served as a codirector of the IC and was responsible for acquiring films for IC presentations. Her influence is still felt in the program, and her colleagues there remember her as someone who didn’t look for praise or attention for her work but worked hard nonetheless. Riep said, “A lot of the films in this series are about ordinary, unassuming people who, like Karmen, went about their lives doing important things because they were the right thing to do.”

For a schedule of film showings, see the IC website.

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)