Director: Sam Voutas
Cast: Zhun Zhao, Wang Naixun
Watch King of Peking online in the UK: Netflix UK
Originally born in Australia, director Sam Voutas was raised in Beijing during the 80s and 90s and brings a certain occidental sensibility to the films that he makes in China. His previous film, Red Light Revolution, managed to be a laidback and rather sweet comedy whose gentleness was made even more surprising when you consider that it centred around someone selling sex toys. His latest feature, King of Peking, continues this – mostly – easygoing feel, as he crafts a homage to cinema past that is also a moving exploration of the relationship between a father and son.
Big Wong (Zhun Zhao) and Little Wong (Wang Naixun) jump from small village to small village, dragging their worn out equipment behind them, so they can show Hollywood films for the locals. But when Big Wong finds out that he must pay spousal support – or risk losing Little Wong – he finds himself living in an old movie theatre after getting work there as a janitor. But when Big Wong discovers a stash of unwanted DVD recorders, an idea comes to him. ‘Borrowing’ the cinema’s film prints on an evening, Big and Little Wong begin to make bootleg DVDs under the moniker ‘King of Peking’. At first it all seems to be going great. But when Little Wong starts displaying some less than ethical behaviour, Big Wong begins to wonder if he is doing the right thing.
King of Peking is partly enjoyable thanks to its unabashed celebration of the cinema – indeed, it’s hard not to see the influence of Cinema Paradiso on the whole affair. The entire film is chock full of references and in-jokes about great (and some not so great) movies. This trading in nostalgia also reflects how shared experiences of the movies can also act as a glue by which different generations bond. There’s even a bit of love shown for film as a physical medium, with a couple of silly but fun moments in which Big Wong has to smuggle 35mm prints to his ‘film studio’.
There’s something wonderfully subversive about a film having movie piracy at the heart of its story. While the average Hollwyood studio head would be frothing at the mouth for even daring to suggest that movie piracy could be committed by someone who is even a smidgen sympathetic, King of Peking takes a more pragmatic view. And, to be fair, it does ultimately show the folly of the Wongs’ machinations.
The performances are great, with Zhao Jun managing to cast a sympathetic figure yet also maintain enough of an air of the grumpy rouge. Wang Naixun is similar, as he radiates a fierce intelligence, while also giving off air of innocence and need for a family.
There’s a slightly grungy and documentary feel to proceedings, as we’re in a world of grey buildings and dusty streets. This feel partly emphasises the need for the movies – an escape from the everyday – but it is also helps add a dose of reality. Indeed, Voutas manages to undercut the sentimentality when it threatens to get too sickly sweet.
Whether you love the cinema or just want a well-told father and son drama, this is a low-key gem that deserves to be unearthed.
King of Peking is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.