Dir: Sam Voutas| Gateway| Dragons & Tigers | China/Australia/USA | 2017 | 88 mins
Thursday, Oct. 12, 6:15 p.m. | International Village 9
King of Peking presents a nostalgic love letter to cinema as well as a look back at a time in China’s history when bootlegging DVDs was a new and exciting idea. Jun Zhao plays the luckless Big Wong, a Beijing projectionist whose latest money-making scheme literally goes up in smoke close to the beginning of the film. The timing turns out to be less than ideal, as his ex-wife takes this moment to provide him with an ultimatum – either he gives his ex-wife 10,000 yuan a month in spousal support or else he gives up custody of his young son, Little Wong (Wang Naixun). Big Wong starts out with the best of intentions – getting a job as a janitor in a popular movie theatre to cough up the money. Eventually, he comes up with a different and more lucrative scheme – making bootleg DVDs out of the theatre’s basement and roping Little Wong to help him. Little Wong, himself a burgeoning little hustler, throws himself wholeheartedly (at least initially) into the bootlegging scheme.
Big Wong and Little Wong call themselves Riggs and Murtaugh (after the Mel Gibson and Danny Glover duo from Lethal Weapon), and their quippy back-and-forth conversations are one of the highlights of the film. While Big Wong does most of the grunt work (stealing film reels or figuring out how to use the DVD player to copy multiple discs), Little Wong is in charge of hawking the DVDs on the streets – he assures one curious passerby that watching the film will cure his arthritis. Theirs is a fruitful partnership, but Little Wong eventually comes to a realization that Big Wong needs to grow up and start acting like a dad. Before long, Big Wong must examine how the King of Peking (as he calls the DVD bootlegging company) is affecting his relationship with his son. Jun Zhao, with his big, earnest face, is perfectly cast as Big Wong, as he sells you on the desperate lengths he must go through to keep his son. He and Wang Naixun as Little Wong have a natural rapport, drawing you into their father and son relationship, and building the emotional stakes as you see the relationship start to go sideways.
King of Peking has a deadpan humour more often seen in Western films – at the film screening Q&A, one audience member from Beijing commented on the Western humour seen in the film and another compared the film to a Wes Anderson-type film. Writer and director Sam Voutas, an Australian expat who grew up in China, skillfully balances both these Western and Eastern sensibilities. Quirky characters abound, including the despotic yet sloppy theatre manager, one side of his shirt perpetually untucked, who directs the staff to recite Mao-like mottos (“Friendly service, diligent work. No stealing, keep your fly zipped!”). In another scene, when asked by the theatre manager why he is seeing the movie, an audience member says matter-of-factly, “I’m looking for entertainment to forget my terrible life choices.”
There are also film references throughout the movie, all of which only the most dedicated cinephile would catch. Big Wong plays film scores on a tape player during long drives in his sanlunche (a motorized rickshaw) and quizzes Little Wong on which films they came from. The film score for Space Odyssey 2001 is referenced in two scenes – one hysterical scene where Big Wong sneaks into the projectionist room, strips his clothes, and wraps the film strip around his rotund body (which could also serve as a double reference to Shakespeare in Love); and another scene involving a penguin trash can in the movie theatre serving as an incognito camcorder holder.
Cushioned among the crowd-pleasing comedy hijinks and cinephile film references, at its core, King of Peking is a warm, nostalgic look at an imperfect father-son relationship – and a time capsule of China before the development boom. King of Peking can take its place among the best of the films it lovingly references – a cunning caper, an emotional father-and-son film, a hysterical comedy with quirky characters and clever dialogue. If you enjoy any of these type of films, and I’m guessing that would be most of you, watch King of Peking.
Watch the trailer.