It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
In a remote area of China, in the 1930s, we meet an old street performer. His profession is humble, but his secrets are a great prize. One day a famous female impersonator from the Sichuan opera sees him performing, gives him a big coin, invites him to tea and offers him a job in his troupe. But the old man, whose name is Wang, refuses this offer because it is a tradition in his family that the secrets are passed only from father to son.
Alas, Wang (played by Zhu Xu with touching appeal) has no son. And at his age, traveling the rivers in his little houseboat from one town to another, it is unlikely he will ever have one. The female impersonator begs him: "Do not die without an heir or your magic will die, too." Wang takes this advice to heart. It is a time of floods and homelessness, and in the next city, there is a baby market where desperate parents look for homes for their hungry children--and cash. Wang is about to leave when an urchin cries out "Grandpa!" and captures his heart. He pays $10 for the 8-year-old, returns with him to his boat and nicknames him Doggie. Together they will study the ancient art of silk masks, by which a man's face can take on a new and startling visage in the flash of a second.
That's the setup for "The King of Masks," a new Chinese film of simplicity, beauty and surprising emotional power. Like "Central Station," it tells the story of a journey involving an old curmudgeon and a young child in search of a father. The difference is that the curmudgeon can become the father, if he chooses. And another one: Doggie is not a little boy, but a little girl.
Girls are not highly valued in China. When he discovers the deception, Wang feels cheated and wants to send Doggie away, but Doggie tearfully explains that she pretended to be a boy because she had been sold seven times already: The man who sold her was not her father, but a man who beat her. She promises to scrub the deck, do the cooking and be a good doggie. The little girl, played with utter simplicity and solemnity by Zhou Ren-ying, has already touched the old man's heart, and he allows her to stay.