Directed by Wu Tianming

While Hong Kong movies have been invading Hollywood through the success of Jackie Chan, John Woo, Jet Li and others, mainland Chinese cinema has invaded the "classier" neighborhoods of the film industry during the last decade or so. The latest contender is The King of Masks, an affecting melodrama from veteran Chinese filmmaker Wu Tianming.

The title refers to Wang (Zhu Xu), an aging street performer who wanders the villages of 1930s China displaying the dying art of "change-face opera" — a sort of quick-change magic act in which a series of masks magically appear on his face seemingly instantaneously and independently.

Wang is the last practitioner of this skill, which is a closely guarded family secret. But his only child has long since died. A popular Chinese opera star named Liang (Zhao Zhigang) offers Wang a place in his traveling show, but Wang suspects (perhaps correctly) that Liang is more interested in observing him, in order to discern and steal his secret technique. When Wang politely declines the offer — he and Liang both speak in metaphors that couch all meaning, no matter how hostile, into proper, "face"-saving discourse — the younger man equally politely reminds him that he isn't getting any younger. If he doesn't pass his technique along soon, it will die with him.

Taking this to heart, Wang visits a neighborhood where desperately impoverished parents sell children to buy food for their remaining offspring. He is charmed into buying Doggie (Zhou Ren-Ying), an adorable 7-year-old boy with whom he quickly forms a deep emotional bond. It seems as though all his problems have been solved — until he discovers that Doggie is actually a girl, essentially less than worthless in that time and place.

Because Doggie has no place to go, Wang reluctantly allows her to stay on as his servant, training her in Chinese opera skills without, however, telling his secrets to her. Her natural curiosity leads to a series of catastrophes that bring the local authorities down on Wang. Doggie's resourcefulness and devotion is his only hope.

That director Wu is getting a relatively wide American release at this stage of his career is ironic: He is older and more experienced than the so-called Fifth Generation directors like Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) and Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), who have become art-house staples. In fact, in the politically volatile world of Chinese cinema, Wu stands as one of the central pioneers who enabled his younger colleagues to break away from the ideological restrictions of post-revolutionary mainland art.

Born in 1939, Wu is old enough to have started his film career in the early 1960s; he was accepted as part of the fifth class of the Beijing Film Academy. But then came the Cultural Revolution, which shut down the academy and much of the film industry, clothing what was left in an ideological and aesthetic straitjacket. After the Cultural Revolution ended, Wu was able to co-direct his first film, Reverberations of Life, in 1979; in 1983 he made his solo directing debut with River Without Buoys, which garnered the sort of attention (and awards) at international film festivals that had evaded Chinese films for decades.

After that success, Wu was made head of Xi'an Studios, where he opened the doors to a new crop of young filmmakers — the first class to graduate from the Beijing Film Academy since before the Cultural Revolution. (Rather than take new students each year, the Beijing Film Academy teaches a single class for years before starting the next class, hence the numbered "generations." The Fifth Generation studied from 1978 to 1982.) Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite), and Huang Jianxin (The Wooden Man's Bride) were among those to whom he gave a start.

Though his 1986 The Old Well greatly augmented his international reputation, politics again derailed his career. Wu was in the U.S. as a visiting scholar during the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. He chose to remain over here until 1994, waiting for things to settle down in China. Unable to support his family on academic lecturing fees, he opened a video store in one of Los Angeles' Chinese-American suburbs. The King of Masks was his first new production after his return to China.

The return is a triumphant one. Wu has fashioned a completely accessible and heartwarming tearjerker. He transplants the classic Silas Marner shtick — child warms the heart of crusty old man — to the particularly brutal milieu of China between the fall of the empire and the revolution.

Even though The King of Masks is much more sentimental than The Old Well, it also has an apparent political subtext. How can one not see Wu himself in the story of an aging artist whose difficult mission is to pass on his art to a younger generation? An artist who is repeatedly beaten down by bad luck and worse timing? Whose career is threatened by the interference of callous government officials? It may not have been his stated intent, but his experience — however much transformed — certainly contributes to making The King of Masks such a wrenching emotional experience.

Opens July 23 at the Plaza Frontenac.