This 1996 Chinese film captured my heart from the very beginning. It's set in China in the 1930s, when street performing and Chinese opera were still considered an art. An old man performs with masks, an ancient Chinese art of which he is very proud. By family tradition, he must pass on his art to a male heir and, since his only son had died many years before, he needs to adopt a young boy. And so he goes to a "baby market" where parents and slave traders sell children. When an 8-year old calls out "grandpa", he purchases the child. It is only a few days later that he discovers that he has adopted a girl, not a boy. She begs him not to cast her away, and so he trains her to be a street performer, but does not teach her the art of masks because she is only a girl.
The plot gets more complex and held me captive with emotion as I was swept into the story and completely identified with the characters and all their problems, especially after the old man and the girl attend a Chinese opera, where female impersonators are stars. There, the ancient story of a woman sacrificing herself for her father is played out in highly dramatic costumed theatrics.
I loved this film - not only for the wonderful story and great acting, but it brought me right into the heart of China and let me immerse myself in another time and place. Yes, there is a happy ending, but not until there were more twists and turns of the plot and I never knew how it would all turn out. Acting was outstanding and I must applaud the actors, Yu Zhu as the old man, Zhigang Zhang as the female impersonator and - mostly, Renying Zhou as the little girl. Rarely have I seen such a fine performance by an 8-year old. Therefore, this film gets one of my highest recommendations. And even though there are some sad and scary parts, I recommend it for everyone.