By Nick Schager
By Inkoo Kang
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Amanda Lewis
By Ily Goyanes
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Ciara LaVelle
By Chuck Wilson
Saura obviously intended the couplings in his script to be a metaphor for the tango, a mating dance fueled by longing and lust, not love. But the story plods along with no real climax: It certainly isn't the rote bedroom scene between Suarez and Elena. And a surprise twist ending arrives too late, because the predictable plot has already proved a fumble-footed partner for the tango's rich sensorial delights. (Friday, February 19, 7:30 p.m.)
-- Judy Cantor
From its serene, austerely beautiful early passages, the 1996 Chinese drama The King of Masks, director Wu Tianming's first film in eight years, builds to a devastating emotional pitch that invites comparisons with Japanese classics such as Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff (1954) and Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain (1959).
It's the deceptively simple story of an aging street performer (a specialist in the art of "change-face opera," in which the player switches masks with astounding speed) whose only son has died and whose wife has abandoned him, leaving him obsessed with securing an heir to whom he can pass on the tricks of his trade. The setting is the rigidly traditional China of the early Twentieth Century, and so that heir must be male. It's also a time of poverty and famine so widespread that desperate families resort to selling their children; the old man is able to buy an appealing youngster from one such parent, only to discover too late that the child is actually a girl disguised as a boy.
Once unmasked the eight-year-old girl becomes a devoted companion who risks everything in her quest to find the "grandson" her reluctant guardian so wants and needs, and the film chronicles the agonizing consequences of her actions. Along the way she and her master cross paths repeatedly with an enigmatic character known as both Master Liang and the Living Bodhisattva, a female impersonator who's one of the top opera stars of the country and who has the utmost respect for the humble King of Masks. Not since The Crying Game (1992) has gender confusion had such far-reaching ramifications.
As befitting a movie in which masks are so important, Wu is a filmmaker clearly in love with faces: the gap-toothed mouth and shaved head of the grave, dignified old man (Chu Yuk); the fragile yet fiercely determined countenance of the girl, a bruised beauty nicknamed Doggie (Chao Yim Yin); the fluid androgyny of the opera star (Zhao Zhigang), who wears masks of stylized makeup in some scenes and an ordinary young man's visage in others; even the haunting face of the monkey who's part of the old man's act. Wu's camera lingers on these enormously expressive faces, waiting patiently for them to give up their secrets.
The filmmaker doesn't have the command of sweeping, voluptuous imagery of a director such as his countryman Zhang Yimou (1990's Ju Dou, 1991's Raise the Red Lantern), whose career he helped launch more than a decade ago. And at times he gets a bit carried away with "ancient Chinese wisdom," tossing off such stilted epigrams as "Though mine is a small teacup, it doesn't leak," and "A drop of compassion deserves a wellspring of gratitude."
But he's also a great humanist artist in the tradition of Chaplin and Jean Renoir. The King of Masks (in Mandarin with English subtitles) transcends its humble beginnings to become a resonant piece of work touching on a wealth of big themes: loyalty and friendship, the meaning of family, the indifference of large social institutions to human suffering, the mysteries of faith and fate. To his credit, Wu neither trivializes them nor pumps them up with false grandeur. (Saturday, February 20, 11:30 a.m.)
"Once upon a time in the shtetl," says the narrator at the beginning of Train of Life (Train de Vie), French-Romanian director Radu Mihaileanu's tragicomic fable about an Eastern European village that, in 1941, tries to outwit the Nazis in an astoundingly unusual way. When village fool Shlomo learns that the Germans have deported Jews in neighboring towns, he goes to his town's elders to help them concoct a plan. Together they decide to assemble a fake transport train to carry the village's entire population to what was then Palestine. Aboard the train townspeople will masquerade as Nazi officers in hopes of fooling the German Army during the journey.
The result -- surely the only film to feature a montage set to klezmer music -- is not always as successful as its hilarious premise. As the train winds its way east toward the Russian border, its inhabitants experience several near misses with disaster, including one in which a passenger, left behind at a rest stop, is almost killed by real Germans. But Mihaileanu is less interested in telling a suspense story than he is in exploring the escape scheme's comic possibilities. He exploits the absurdity of the shtetl Jews -- self-proclaimed expert tailors -- whipping up authentic-looking SS uniforms, and has them hide mezuzahs (small prayer scrolls) under the swastikas emblazoned on each train car. The film's major set piece involves the "Nazis" aboard the train requisitioning a giant kosher feast right under the noses of real Germans. And in one poignant scene, the travelers stop to celebrate the Sabbath: They bow their heads in prayer, many of them wearing yarmulkes atop their Nazi attire.
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