Movies about how great movies are often tug at an audience’s heartstrings — after all, its one reason why romantic celebrations of Hollywood like The Artist and La La Land received so much acclaim and awards gold. But it’s easy for an industry set in Hollywood to forget how much love there is for cinema around the world, even in cultures that are just beginning to understand the magic of film. King of Peking, directed by Sam Voutas, offers a glimpse of a very different culture as seen through the lens of a love of movies.
Big Wong (Jun Zhao) is a traveling projectionist who makes a living exhibiting movies from village to village in China with the assistance of his enthusiastic young son Little Wong (Wang Naixun). Big Wong has a deep love of cinema and tries to impart that love to his son (he refers to themselves as “Riggs and Murtaugh” as a nod to their partnership and, of course, Lethal Weapon). When their projector catches fire and melts, Big Wong resorts to taking a low-paying job as a janitor at a cinema in order to try to maintain custody of his son, though his ex-wife believes he cannot adequately care for Little Wong. Because the Wongs live in the basement of the cinema, Big Wong tells Little Wong that they are forming a “movie studio” — really a DVD bootlegging operation. The Wongs become hugely successful at selling bootlegs, but it comes at a price — though Little Wong is initially a willing participant with fantastic salesmanship skills, he eventually tires of the constant “studio” work and begins to question both the morality of the operation and the work demands it places on them.
King of Peking is a sweet father-son story about a father trying to provide for his son but at the same time not listening to the son’s actual needs. The actors are very suited for their roles and portray the frustrations of their characters well, and (of course) any fan of movies will love the various references to great movies sprinkled throughout King of Peking. The closest comparison to a similar film is the all-time classic Cinema Paradiso — and while it’s not as poignant, there is similar cinematic fairy-tale warmth to King of Peking.
Though writer/director Sam Voutas is Australian, he grew up in Beijing and received acclaim for his 2010 film Red Light Revolution, which was also set in China and starred Jun Zhao. He demonstrates an obvious understanding of Chinese culture — particularly the economic disparity — and the growing Chinese fascination with American film. The film has an authentic feel that makes it easy to sympathize with Big Wong and see that he’s trying to best to provide for his son even if his ex-wife and son don’t understand that. With that said, the major conflicts are wrapped up a bit too conveniently by the end of the film and there seems like there could have been to this story to end with a better punch.
Nonetheless, King of Peking will bring a smile to the face of any movie lover and is the type of feel-good story that Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make — so cheers to Voutas and his cast for the throwback.