Every day while CFI’s Hollywood readers take in the business of the Chinese film industry, the actual movies can sometimes seem exotic or remote. But in major US cities, mainstream Chinese films are increasingly available: thanks to Wanda’s purchase of AMC and distributors like China Lion, they get American theatrical releases practically simultaneous to their premieres at home. Though they receive virtually no publicity outside the non-Chinese community, these films are more than worth seeking out by anyone serious about engaging the Chinese industry, understanding the Chinese sensibility and familiarizing themselves with China’s talent pool. Periodically, CFI will review and point readers in the direction of noteworthy US releases of contemporary commercial and independent Chinese titles.
King of Peking (2017)
This must-see gem of a comedy from sophomore writer and director Sam Voutas is about father and son projectionists who stick together through hard times in Beijing, making ends meet by pirating movies.
Honed in the forge of dishonest dealings, their street savvy reflects the calculus of two thieves arrived at a tipping point in China’s recent past: how to survive when it becomes clear that everybody else is playing by different rules and change is necessary?
King of Peking is set in China’s capital 20 years ago, in the summer of 1997, just as the mainland was reunited with Hong Kong — the rule-of- law British colony from which Chinese-language cinema spread around the world while for decades Communist censors blunted the work of filmmakers north of the border.
Voutas and wife and producer Melanie Ansley — whose first film together was the equally charming Red Light Revolution — are, as expatriates who grew up in China, at the vanguard of a hopeful, if small, opening-up of China’s still rigidly controlled movie industry. Though raised in Beijing and Shanghai, respectively, Voutas, who is Australian, and Ansley, Canadian, bring an international storytelling sense to a distinctly Chinese scenario.
Even if their new film, which premiered at Tribeca in April, is subtitled over dialogue in marble-mouthed dialect (in which they’re both fluent), and takes place in a dusty sprawl yet to sprout the iconic glass and steel structures that associated with Beijing today, global moviegoers tuning in on streaming platforms will relate to the sheer entrepreneurial drive of the divorced and single father striving for his kid’s love and paying a price for overdoing it.
After watching his projector overheat and go up in flames, father projectionist “Big Wang,” played by actor Zhao Jun as a big-faced, big-bellied, big-hearted softie, must stoop to work as a janitor in a big city theater. There he can’t quite make cash enough to pay child support and keep “Little Wang” (Wang Naixun) in his relatively stationary care and away from his mother (Han Qing) who lives life on the move, literally, working selling snacks from a pushcart in the sleeper car on the long-haul railroad.
Two decades into its policy of reform and opening up, China in the late-1990s is undergoing massive growing pains as some sectors such as the movie business invite competition and chaos, while others, such as the railways, remain state-owned and operated, and relatively stable if dead-end.
If the train is the collective mode of moving about in China, then Big Wang’s driving his own three-wheeled motorcycle with a cab is symbolic of his, and the country’s, nascent individualism. Putting about the alleys and broad highways of the outskirts of Beijing, father tests son, quizzing him on his knowledge of the soundtracks of foreign films blaring through tinny speakers in the house on the back of the bike.
Big Wang calls himself “Murtaugh” and nicknames Little Wang “Riggs,” both after the 1987 Hollywood cop thriller Lethal Weapon, starring Danny Glover and Mel Gibson. They talk about Westerns and monster movies and all the icons of Tinseltown long-banned from China but now trickling in from overseas. Little Wang buys into his father’s plot to steal these films from the cinema where they live underneath the auditorium stage and copy them en masse to DVD machines set up in the kitchenette.
Little Wang is a natural salesman and gets a thrill making his neighborhood rounds and pleasing his dad. But when his state-employed mom points out that his dad the entrepreneur is exploiting his labor, and then Little Wang begins to suffer at school after so many late nights out on the job, son rebels, less because of the work and mostly, it turns out, because dad can’t seem to find the time to help him build a paper Mache volcano.
The father’s dream is not the child’s. The father’s dream is to remain a child and at the same time keep his child. The actual child is caught between parents, caught between the comfort and certainty of the past and the rocky open road of the future, where he must insist upon his own dreams. The tender father-son rapport between actors Zhao and Wang on screen is as sweet as the scenes between Zhao and Han, playing his ex-wife, are sour.
The lesson learned as father is called to the mat by his son and told that he’s passing down bad habits, is a lesson that the film subtly seems to suggest as a current running under many aspects of life in China today: actions speak louder than words and one can only talk one’s way out of taking illegal actions for so long.
WHAT DOES THE GRADE MEAN?
Here are some recent & modern-era vintage Chinese and Hong Kong films for comparison
- PLATFORM (2000, dir Jia Zhangke)
- THE WORLD (2004, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- DRUNKEN MASTER 2 (1994, dir. Lau Kar Leung & Jackie Chan)
- KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004, dir. Stephen Chow)
- LET THE BULLETS FLY (2010, dir Jiang Wen)
- THE MERMAID (2016, dir. Stephen Chow)
- A TOUCH OF SIN (2013, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- STILL LIFE (2006, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (2015, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- LITTLE BIG SOLDIER (2010, dir. Ding Sheng)
- EXTRAORDINARY MISSION (2017, dir. Alan Mak & Anthony Pun)
- MR SIX (2015, dir. Guan Hu)
- A WORLD WITHOUT THIEVES (2004, dir. Feng Xiaogang)
- SUZHOU RIVER (1999, dir. Lou Ye)
- HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004, dir Zhang Yimou)
- RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991, dir. Zhang Yimou)
- DUCKWEED (2017, dir. Han Han)
- I BELONGED TO YOU (2016, dir. Zhang Yibai)
- THE GREAT WALL (2016, dir. Zhang Yimou)
- OLD STONE (2016, dir. Johnny Ma)
- CRAZY STONE (2006, dir. Ning Hao)
- GO, LALA GO (2010, dir. Xu Jinglei)
- KUNG FU YOGA (2017, dir. Stanley Tong)
- RAILROAD TIGERS (2016, dir. Ding Sheng)
- THE WASTED TIMES (2016, dir. Cheng Er)
- CHONGQING HOT POT (2016, dir. Yang Qing)
- MONSTER HUNT (2015, dir. Raman Hui)
- JOURNEY TO THE WEST: THE DEMONS STRIKE BACK (2017, dir. Tsui Hark)
- SOME LIKE IT HOT (2017, dir. Song Xiaofei & Dong Xu)
- BORN IN CHINA (2016, dir. Lu Chuan)
- TINY TIMES (2013, dir. Guo Jingming)