There’s something undeniably charming about Sam Voutas’ King of Peking. I smiled my way through a lot of the film, and snippets of its feel-good score (AM radio easy listening, in a good way) have been stuck in my head this week as I’ve been schlepping around the city.
A movie about watching movies, there’s a hint of Cinema Paradiso. That comparison is unavoidable, sure, but it’s just a hint; King of Peking is much more about grifting and the squalor our father and son protagonists go through just to stay together. It’s maybe closer in tone to Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind by way of a low-stakes confidence man movie. Big Wong (Jun Zhao) and his son Little Wong (Wang Naixun) both love movies, but they also love to eat, so they sell bootlegs of movies.
King of Peking
Director: Sam Voutas
Release Date: TBD
Big Wong and Little Wong used to tour the countryside screening movies in small towns. A projection mishap forces them to come up with a new way to make money. Big Wong also needs to come up with child support to hold on to his son despite his abject poverty. Big Wong takes a job at a rundown cinema as a janitor; the whole movie house operation has a bizarre militancy about it. There, in that crumbling theater, Big Wong figures out how to bootleg movies and turn that into a meager subsistence.
At its core, King of Peking feels like a mix of buddy movie and father-and-son bonding movie. Here are two people who care for each other and who come closer through their love of movies. Yet we rarely see the movies themselves on screen save for a few clips here and there. Probably a practical clearance rights issue, which just adds to the charm. The score also nods to famous film music, either using well-known classical compositions made famous in the movies or offering knock-off nods to famous cinematic melodies. Like Big Wong and Little Wong’s bootleg operation, the film has an endearing handmade, small scale quality about it.
The tension in Big Wong and Little Wong’s relationship–like the tension in other buddy movies and father/son movies–comes when one person feels ignored or used, or both. Voutas adds some pathos to the feel-good surface of the film in the closing acts. It gives King of Peking a sense of fond nostalgia, like looking back at a time and a place that mattered in someone’s life many years ago.