Deng Xiaoping died in 1997, shortly after commercial DVDs were introduced to the marketplace. In many ways, these two events heralded the end of eras: a time of relative openness in China and the golden age of home video. Granted, DVDs have certain advantages in terms of space that make them more attractive to would-be pirates. In order to maintain custody of his son, a down-sized projectionist launches such a piracy scheme in Sam Voutas’s King of Peking, which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.
Big Wong was once a professional projectionist, but in recent years he has eked out a living as an itinerant showman screening films in provincial villages. Unfortunately, when his projector flares out, he is forced to accept a lowly custodial job at a large but shabby neighborhood movie theater. This is not just an economic setback. It means his ex-wife will have grounds to reclaim custody of their son, Little Wong. As a railroad porter, her situation is not ideal either, but it is stable.
However, Big Wong finds opportunity in adversity. The janitor job comes with a basement apartment and access to the projection booth—and the cans of film stored within. Soon, Big Wong is doing a brisk trade in pirated films, right under his employer’s nose. However, the underground nature of his “King of Peking” bootleg distribution business involves complications that will jeopardize his standing with Little Wong.
King of Peking is the sort of film that makes audiences nostalgic for a time and place they never experienced for themselves. We can feel something is lost in the passing of the communal movie screenings, despite the convenience and comfort of home viewing options (legal or black market). There is a whiff of an Edward Yang vibe and a pinch of Hou Hsiao-hsien seasoning, but King is much more accessible and relatable, like a cross between De Sica’s Bicycle Thief and Ozu’s Floating Weeds, but with more classic Hollywood references.
Zhao Jun and Wang Naixun are simply a remarkable tandem as Big and Little Wong, respectively. One glance at their body language tells you all you need to know about their loving but often strained relationship. Zhao is especially poignant as the father finding himself hoisted on his own good intentions and ethical shortcuts. He really ought to be a leading contender for best actor in the international competition. Plus, Han Qing truly humanizes Wong’s ex, Lei Lin, rather than playing her as a stereotypical shrew.
Everything about King is wistful and acutely human. Charming but never cloying, it is a film with a big heart and street smarts. Anyone will appreciate its scruffy family drama, but cineastes will be particularly taken with its movie love. Very highly recommended, King of Peking screens again tonight (4/21), tomorrow (4/22), Saturday (4/29), and Sunday (4/30), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.