The street performer for whom The King of Masks is named has a boxful of masks, but director Wu Tianming has one, too: history. Set in impoverished ’30s Sichuan, his tale of three outsiders depicts a country of extreme poverty and sumptuous wealth, of routine bigotry and slipshod justice. In Wu’s words, it’s “an economic battlefield”—but, when he said those words, he was referring to the contemporary China that greeted in him in 1994 after he returned from a five-year exile in the United States.

Wu was the head of Xian Studios who in the ’80s nurtured such fledgling directors as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. In movies like Raise the Red Lantern and Yellow Earth, these filmmakers depicted the bad old days of pre-Communist China in ways that were manifestly relevant to post-Maoist society. (One thing that’s not always clear to Western viewers is that these depictions of feudal, agrarian life are usually set not in the distant past but in the 20th century.) Zhang and Chen have often tangled with China’s censors, but Wu has not. First released in 1996, The King of Masks has actually had more difficulty getting seen in the U.S. than in China.

The movie opens with the meeting of Wang (Zhu Xu) and Liang (Zhao Zhigang). Wang is a wizened, toothless street conjurer with a limited but impressive act: He changes masks with such lightning speed that no one can see how he makes the transitions. Liang is a Chinese Opera star who plays female roles, commonly called “the Living Bodhisattva” after his most famous part. Liang offers Wang a place in his troupe, but the older man declines, insisting that the secret of his act can only be handed down to a male heir.

Wang, however, doesn’t have a male heir, just a monkey named General. His only son died 20 years ago, and he can’t find an adopted “grandson” to become his apprentice. In the destitute region, little girls are easily available, but even the poorest families usually keep their male offspring. After Wang buys a talisman that guarantees him a son, however, he discovers an 8-year-old who can be purchased for the equivalent of a few dollars.

Social roles in prerevolutionary China being reliably rigid, it never occurs to him that the child dressed in boy’s clothing might be a girl. That’s just what the apprentice he calls Doggie (Zhou Ren-Ying) turns out to be, and when Wang discovers as much, his reaction is to abandon her. Doggie refuses to leave him, however, and soon Wang has accepted her. He won’t teach her the mask act, but he does subject her to demanding gymnastic training; when Doggie can rival General’s balance and dexterity, she becomes a fellow street performer. Wei Minglung’s script then dictates a series of melodramatic catastrophes, leaving Doggie alone and Wang in jail, facing a death sentence. The girl appeals to Liang to rescue her surrogate grandfather—there’s an amusing moment when the man who plays female characters meets the girl he last saw as a boy—but despite his fame and wealth, a female impersonator has little sway in political circles. Ultimately, it’s up to Doggie to save her sometime benefactor.

Since it’s the story of the growing affection between a crusty adult and a plucky child, Wu’s film bears some resemblance to Kolya and Central Station. With its scenic views of river valleys adorned with massive Buddhas carved into cliffs, it also recalls the elegantly pictorial style of Wu’s former proteges. For all its brutality, however, the film is softer and more sentimental than Zhang’s and Chen’s best work—owing in part to Zhao Jiping’s syrupy musical cues. Finally, Wu’s indictment of Chinese society is undermined by the tidy ending. Still, the issues the movie raises are compelling, its images are indelible, and Zhou’s spirited (and physically courageous) performance is astonishing. Apprenticed to the Xian Acrobatic Troupe at age 3 by her penniless family, Zhou is the most persuasive evidence that The King of Masks doesn’t really take place in the past.

Andrzej Wajda’s Korczak ends when a train full of Jewish children being transported to Treblinka suddenly stops, the occupants break free, and they rush exultantly into an open field. The scene is clearly a poetic depiction of the children’s death, yet when the film was first screened in Paris, Shoah director Claude Lanzmann reportedly stood up during the scene and loudly protested: It wasn’t harsh enough, and thus it wasn’t true.

Ten years later, there’s a whole set of Holocaust films that aren’t harsh enough, beginning with Schindler’s List and continuing with three recent Holocaust comedies: Life Is Beautiful, the new Jakob the Liar, and the imminent Train of Life. All take different routes but arrive at the same dilemma: how to conclude a commercially viable Holocaust film without being either too light or too dark. One ending gambit is so helpful that both Jakob the Liar and Train of Life use variations on it.

It’s a violation of film-critic etiquette to reveal endings, so readers will have to do the compare-and-contrast for themselves. Still, it’s just common sense that some characters must survive and others must die. A movie that ends with every sympathetic character dead is not a comedy, and one that ends with every sympathetic character alive is not about the Holocaust. Indeed, Jakob the Liar opens with Jakob Heym (Robin Williams) chasing a sheet of newspaper as it’s blown through a Jewish ghetto somewhere in Poland in 1944, only to find himself standing before corpses hanging in the foreground. The imminence of death thus established, director Peter Kassovitz (father of Hate director Mathieu Kassovitz, who has a small role here) can turn his attention to saving as many of the protagonists as possible. “There’s always hope,” as one of the film’s minor players says. Of course, he’s a German officer.

A former cafe owner who now works—as do all the ghetto’s remaining male inhabitants—loading and unloading boxcars in the adjacent rail yard, Jakob is not known as a hero or a leader. The opening sequence, however, sets the stage for Jakob to become both: Sent to the Nazi commandant’s office, he hears a radio report that Russian troops are advancing through Poland—amazing news for a man who’s been sequestered from newspapers and radio for five years. Then, on his way back to his home, Jakob meets 10-year-old Lina (Hannah Taylor Gordon), who has just escaped from a concentration-camp-bound train, and agrees to shelter her.

The next day, Jakob talks his old friend Kowalsky (Bob Balaban) out of killing himself, but stronger measures are needed to prevent passionate, slow-witted ex-boxer Mischa (Liev Schreiber) from launching a suicidal escape attempt. Jakob stops him by revealing that the Red Army is on its way, news that Mischa can’t keep to himself. Soon everyone knows that the Russians are coming and that Jakob heard it on his radio. Jakob denies having a receiver, which would be grounds for his execution, but his neighbors won’t believe that he heard the report in the commandant’s office. After the ghetto’s esteemed Dr. Kirschbaum (Armin Mueller-Stahl) tells Jakob that his hoax is keeping people alive, Jakob begins his real lies. Absurd as the hastily improvised details are, most people believe them, although Mischa’s potential father-in-law Frankfurter (Alan Arkin) is infuriated that Jakob is spreading false hope.

Adapted by Hungarian-born Parisian Kassovitz and Didier Decoin from the novel by Holocaust survivor Jurek Becker, Jakob the Liar doesn’t spread as much false hope as Life Is Beautiful, which also turns on an unlikely hero’s attempt to save a child’s life. Elemer Ragalyi’s cinematography is suitably gray and shadowy, and Williams’ performance is relatively restrained. The story would have been more interesting if the radio rumors had persisted despite Jakob’s continued denials, but that would have denied the actor his principal bit of schtick: playing all the voices in a fake BBC broadcast he stages at Lina’s insistence. (She buys it—which would be more credible if she hadn’t already been established as more savvy survivalist than her protector.)

Mild as it is, Jakob the Liar was apparently deemed problematic in Hollywood. The first film made by the production company run by Williams and his wife, it’s being released nine months after the second one, Patch Adams. Given that their star started as a comedian, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the movies have similar morals: Laughter is the best defense, whether against disease or genocide. Such sentiments may sustain a commercially viable Holocaust comedy, but they’re entirely inadequate to the Holocaust itself.