In the increasingly interconnected world of filmmaking, where films from Indonesia and South Korea are as easily accessible as Hollywood blockbusters, the term ‘foreign film’ is beginning to feel like a terribly outdated term. It establishes an expectation that something about the film will be… foreign. Sam Voutas’s new film, King of Peking, may be a foreign language film, but it feels cut from the same cloth as many of the independent films made in The States today. That’s not to say the film is in any way derivative; it’s simply familiar. It seems particularly poignant that a Chinese film about the ubiquity of cinema feel universally accessible. It turns out that what’s charming is charming in any language.
Jun Zhao stars as Big Wong, a traveling projectionist who works with his son, Little Wong (Wang Naixun). Affectionately referring to themselves as Riggs and Murtaugh, they setup makeshift movie nights with a bed sheet and a 16mm projector, playing old Hollywood movies for a dollar a pop. When Wong’s projector and livelihood goes up in smoke, his ex-wife seizes on the opportunity to take custody of Little Wong, demanding $10,000 a month in alimony if he doesn’t give up custody. Not one to give up easily, Wong takes a job as a janitor at a local theatre, where he coerces Little Wong to aid him in his latest scheme: making pirate DVDs.
King of Peking, named for the distribution company Wong names his piracy business, does not exactly break the mold, as far as its narrative is concerned. In fact, it almost seems to go out of its way to keep the mold intact. Voutas’s screenplay seems to built itself out of classic movie staples: the down and out father, the pressuring from the ex-wife, the innocent but savvy child, the mad-cap schemes. You might assume that might make King of Peking feel stale or derivative, but its construction feels purposeful – even clever. This film is the Wongs’ story, and their story is one shaped by the movies.
Jun Zhao turns in a fun, yet complexly balanced performance as Wong and the young Naixun holds his own as a capable straight man to his father’s mad schemes. The film pays the proper attention to their relationship, balancing utter disfunction with genuine affection to create an emotional heft that gives the film the space to engage in moments of utter silliness. The film doesn’t pull its punches in its portrayal of Wong’s unfit parenting, who subjects Little Wong to what amounts to profound neglect, often doing his homework for him so Little Wong can spend more time working on the movies. But, ultimately, King of Peking keeps things light, and brisk; it knows where to focus its attention, and that’s more than a lot of films can say.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Sam Voutas’s King of Peking is an undeniably charming film. It’s a great film about cinema and about the way parents affect and are effected by their children. King of Peking is having its world debut at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.