Today, conversation about movies in Mainland China usually revolves around the thousands of multiplex cinemas that are being built each year, which local blockbuster has just set a new box office record, or how state censorship is hindering the industry’s creative development. For many years, though, such conversations were usually dominated by one topic – piracy.
Before the multiplex revolution and the relaxation of the import quota gave China’s movie fans a multitude of big screen experiences to choose from, most were reliant on bootleg VCDs, then DVDs, whether for pure entertainment or as a form of arts education. From the late 1990s, shops and street stalls selling pirated media became a common sight, until the more recent combination of official crackdowns and the rise of Internet streaming services largely put such enterprises out of business. Even when taking valid ethical issues into account, it’s hard for anyone who’s spent time in China in the past few decades not to feel wistful when the subject of pirate DVDs comes up and Sam Voutas’ immensely likeable 1990s-set comedy King of Peking mines its nostalgic charm from the activities of a black market pioneer.
Big Wong (Zhao Jun) is a projectionist who ekes out a living by showing old prints to Beijing’s courtyard communities with assistance from his son Little Wong (Wang Naixun), but when his equipment catches fire, he’s forced to take a job as a lowly janitor at a large, Soviety-style cinema. Now divorced, Big Wong needs to keep up with spousal support payments or Little Wong will instead live with his mother (Han Qing), who works as an attendant on the long-haul rail service. After finding a prototype DVD recorder in a second-hand store, Big Wong hatches a plan to make the much-needed extra cash that involves pirating the cinema’s latest attractions and selling them around the neighborhood under the banner ‘King of Peking’. Their residence in the cinema’s basement serves as a makeshift base of operation where copies can be churned out and imported films can even be dubbed when necessary.
Although piracy provides King of Peking with its narrative impetus and will no doubt make it immediately appealing to anyone whose formative movie experiences came through home media, this is at heart a father/son story. Zhao and Wang have winning chemistry with the former playing Big Wong as an overgrown kid for whom life is a playground, while the latter disarmingly shows Little Wong’s growing disillusionment with these escapades despite unconditionally loving his father regardless of his inability to meet parental responsibilities, such as helping to build a model volcano for a homework assignment. While the boy’s mother has literally got on board with China’s future via her stable railway job, Big Wong is unconcerned with keeping up, as represented by his chosen mode of transportation, a rickety three-wheeled motorcycle with a cab. He’s so much of an individualist that he turns down an offer from some university students to start a distribution company. Still, there are crucial aspects of Little Wong’s upbringing that can only be provided by a dreamer, even if the boy realizes that it may be better to spend time with his father in increments.
King of Peking is Australian filmmaker Voutas’ second feature following his riotous sex shop comedy Red Light Revolution (2010), which also starred Zhao as a humble entrepreneur. Zhao is similarly roguish here, but has matured as an actor in the meantime, bringing nuance to his previously broad Beijing persona and engendering plenty of sympathy to what could have been yet another deadbeat screen father. Indeed, this is an altogether mellower, agreeably sentimental outing. Seppe Van Grieken’s warm cinematography is just right for Voutas’ neorealist take on Beijing life before the economic boom (the not-so-distant past was recreated in the northern province of Hebei) and the production evidences a disarmingly handmade quality.
Told in chapter format with several jaunty montages to keep its slight story moving at a lively pace, King of Peking offers a steady stream of laughs before seguing nicely into a bittersweet final stretch that addresses pressing realities without sacrificing its playful spirit. Much of gentle humor stems from the efforts taken to pirate current titles and sell them to a growing customer base that commence with Big Wong smuggling out prints by wrapping them around his heavyset frame and culminate with Little Wong peddling the final products, complete with amateur artwork, by using outlandish claims like, “I used to be dead, watching this film brought me back!”
To return to the matter of piracy, King of Peking doesn’t take a particularly critical stance on the issue. When the cinema’s security guard asks an audience member his reason for coming, the middle-aged man replies, “To forget my awful life choices.” It’s a line that amusingly summarizes Voutas’ celebration of the magic of the movies, regardless of how they may be seen.