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: The rote bedroom scene between Suarez and Elena certainly doesn't qualify. 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.

-- Judy Cantor (Friday, February 19, 7:30 p.m.)

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 such Japanese classics 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 20th Century, 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 (1989'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.

-- Michael Mills (Saturday, February 20, 11:30 a.m.)

An appealing hybrid of fiction and documentary, The Apple joins a small group of contemporary films (1988's The Thin Blue Line, 1992's Brother's Keeper) that depart from the insular universe of movies to reach out and affect the real world. It tells the story of Massoumeh and Zahra, two real-life, 11-year-old Iranian twins who were kept locked in the house by their father. The family's plight became public when neighbors wrote to the authorities complaining that the children had been neither bathed nor schooled since birth. The release of the film has helped Massoumeh and Zahra and their parents attain a more well-rounded life.

Director Samira Makhmalbaf is a young Iranian woman herself, only 17 years old when she first read about the girls, and only 18 when The Apple won the 1998 Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard prize (for films not entered in the official competition). Makhmalbaf, however, isn't your typical Iranian teenager. She is the daughter of prominent Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh, Salaam Cinema), a circumstance that helped her to circumvent the standard long waiting process for government approval of a script as well as to obtain film stock, also controlled by the authorities. Thanks to her determination and her considerable talents, Makhmalbaf became the youngest director ever to have a film screened at Cannes.

In addition to serving as a nonfiction account, The Apple (in Farsi with English subtitles) operates as a fable, one that follows a decades-long Iranian filmmaking tradition of constructing tales about children in order to criticize social ills, thereby dodging the possibility of censorship. On one level the film records how the girls were taken from their elderly impoverished father and blind mother and then returned when the parents promised to feed them properly and let them play outside the house. As an allegory, however, it confronts the condition of women in Iran, great numbers of whom have their freedom curtailed by customs and laws that consider them the property of their husbands and fathers.

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