As someone who was obsessed with movies by the age of five, I am a sucker for films about boys who are introduced to movies at an early age, such as Cinema Paradiso and Hugo. Now comes Sam Voutas’s King of Peking, a Chinese-language film that had its world premiere in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, which I covered for FilmInk (Aus) and DansPapers.com.
The synopsis from the King of Peking press notes:
“Big Wong (Zhao Jun) and his young son Little Wong (Wang Naixun) are part of a fading tradition [in China]: traveling film projectionists screening Hollywood movies for villagers who otherwise don’t have access to films. When video home entertainment enters the market in ‘90s Beijing, Big Wong ropes his son into starting their own pirate movie company, King of Peking…. Business soon booms, but in the maelstrom of making money, Big Wong realizes that he might lose something more precious than custody: his son’s trust. And Little Wong learns that sometimes parents make bad choices for very good reasons. King of Peking is a comedic drama that explores father and son relationships, morality, and what it means to be an example for others.”
The festival trailer:
During the festival, I was able to have the following conversation with the Australian writer-director about his engaging new movie.
Danny Peary: King of Peking is having its world premiere here at the Tribeca Film Festival. It was made in China and is in Chinese. Yet you are Australian.
Sam Voutas: I was born in Canberra in 1979, but Melbourne is my home. I went to public schools there for a few years and attended Victorian College of the Arts. I got my degree in 2001. In fact, I read FilmInk when it was just starting out! Right now I’m sort of all over the place: I live in Los Angeles and do most of my work in China, but most of my family is in Melbourne so whenever I get the chance to go back to Australia, that’s where I always go. Every two years, I go back for Christmas. Now that this film is on the festival circuit I hope we can take it back there.
DP: What is your China connection?
SV: I first went to China on a trip with my parents in 1981, and I still have the photographs. The first time I lived there was 1986, when my mum was in the Australian embassy in Beijing. She left the embassy and then my dad started working in the administration at a small college. So I went to school in China for the majority of my childhood. I also spent most of my twenties in China. So overall I lived there for 18 years.
DP: Are you known in China, in the film community?
SV: I’m not very famous, but some people do know me, mostly for Red Light Revolution. I worked on some larger films as an actor, like City of Life and Death, which was a big production there. The acting has always been a means for me to make my passion projects such as King of Peking.
DP: You don’t act in King of Peking.
SV: I don’t act in it, I’m just writer-director. I don’t make an Alfred Hitchcock-like cameo. Zhao Jun, the actor who plays Big Wong, also starred in Red Light Revolution.
DP: Were you inspired to make King of Peking by your childhood in China?
SV: The college where my father worked was located in a rural area about an hour-and-a-half’s drive Beijing and on weekends about once a month, a traveling projectionist would come to town. I got to experience that firsthand in the early nineties. I was about 12 and there would be these screenings on a badminton court. People would hang up a sheet and they’d play old Burt Reynolds movies. That’s how I saw Smokey and the Bandit, dubbed into Chinese.
DP: Was it the same projectionist every time that people waited for, as it is with the lead character in your movie?
SV: I just remember sitting on the stools and watching whatever film they showed. In those days I didn’t have plans to become a filmmaker, so I wasn’t paying attention to every detail, but was just a young movie fan.
DP: Could you understand Chinese?
SV: I was learning the language and could pretty much understand the dubbed films. I speak Chinese now.
DP: When watching your film I was thinking of a great scene in Preston Sturges’s Sullivan Travels  when hardened prisoners laugh so hard at a silly cartoon because it’s their only escape from their misery. Because I could see the appeal of Hollywood action films to this rural population in China, over some drama like Citizen Kane.
SV: Especially because the sound quality was so bad. All they had were these horrible old speakers so you wanted as little dialogue as possible in order to convey a story.
DP: Where did you get the idea of a projectionist teaming with his young son in the film piracy business?
SV: That came mostly from the fact that I was becoming a father when I was writing the screenplay. The concept of fatherhood was very much on my mind. I had already written the first draft of a script that didn’t have a child in it, just the projectionist and his buddy—two old classmates who decided to do it together. I wasn’t happy with it and showed it to a few people who were very close to me and it became more obvious it wasn’t working. So I changed it by merging that with what I was thinking about becoming a first-time dad and needing to take on responsibilities.
[Note: In Sam Voutas’s ‘Director’s Statement’ in the film’s press notes he says, “Coming to terms with impending fatherhood, I realized that from now on I’d need to try and set a good example for my daughter. I needed to shift my life from ‘what can I get away with’ to whether I’m actually a good role model for her. Sure, I might fail in my efforts, but at least I had to give it a go. And so, with memories from my childhood in the back of my head, I started writing this story about parents and piracy….This is an exploration of how the paths we choose as adults can affect our kids, and how sometimes it’s not just the child who has to grow up.”]
DP: Big Wong is an irresponsible father but part of his appeal is that he has a genuine love of movies. And he does provide entertainment.
SV: That’s right. He’s a traveling showman, really. He harks back to what there was the West, traveling showman who would bring entertainment to the locals in the towns he passed through. He’s almost in a way, and I hadn’t thought of this before, he takes the mold of what he used to do in a traditional sense by going from neighborhood to neighborhood and starts bringing entertainment to people the city.
DP: I could tell that you, like Big Wong, are a real film buff, because you have him mention John Ford and Akira Kurosawa.
SV: I put those in there because when I was studying at the Victorian College of the Arts, those were the two filmmakers whose work was shown. In the movie—it’s not a joke—the way Big Wong is teaching the locals about these masters is through his bootlegged versions. So the locals are getting their education about the masters of cinema from the guy selling bootlegged films on the corner.
DP: It is important, I think, that this is the education he’s giving Little Wong. This is what he’s capable of teaching his son.
SV: When he makes the decision to bootleg movies showing at the cinema, he doesn’t even think about the repercussions this could have on his kid. It doesn’t enter his mind because he’s thinking, “How do I make it to the next paycheck?|” But kids are easily influenced and it’s like father like son, and slowly over the course of the movie, Little Wong starts picking up Dad’s bad habits.
DP: Little Wong is cleverer and actually is capable of doing more than Big Wong. He can run their illegal enterprise.
SV: Yeah, he’s a very capable boy and that’s why when Big Wong starts running the bootlegging business, having Little Wong as his son is so important. Little Wong is a great salesman.
DP: The Wongs live in the basement of a theater, which they get to through a trap door on the stage. Was that your concept?
SV: Yes, it seemed like a beautiful, surreal idea that the projectionist would have to live in the cinema. I’ll tell you part of the inspiration for that. When we were shooting in this old massive cinema, a projectionist was actually living there. Here was this guy doing the same thing our lead character does. He didn’t have a washing machine so he was washing his clothes by hand and hang them up to dry in front of the screen. That was really interesting!
DP: A memorable character in your movie is the martinet head of ushers, who lines up all those under his employ as if he were a drill sergeant with his troops. Is there any basis of reality for such a character?
SV: Yes, but that doesn’t just happens in theaters but in barber shops and any other workplaces with a number of people. It’s commonplace in China for employees to line up, to recite things or to even dance or do their morning exercises.
DP: Big Wong’s ex-wife is by no means perfect and I was thinking their son is better off with his father. Do you want that reaction?
SV: She’s not a perfect mother and she’s even gone back on her word. Before the movie starts, she and Big Wong had an agreement that he will get custody of the child, but now she has a change of heart and has a big-time lawyer put pressure on Big Wong. Still, in my opinion the best thing for Little Wong is to live with her. The choices his father has made have been irresponsible and bad things have happened to the boy as a result, so I understand why he’d want to leave his father. I think this film is about how a father who comes to the realization that sometimes it is best to let go. If you want to hold on to something too much, you start making the wrong choices because you aren’t thinking rationally.
DP: In the press notes, you say, “With the arrival of digital discs, which brought pirated movies into most homes in China, the traveling projectionists disappeared. I always wondered what happened to them.” At one point, Big Wong goes along with his son’s idea to go into the “fun park” business. Were you commenting on how projected films were becoming passé and newer forms of entertainment were taking over?
SV: That wasn’t my intention. It was more about the son having a daydream he was passionate about at the time, which would pass as many daydreams do, and the father, for the first time, goes along with it and entertain his child. So it becomes less “You’ve got to watch the movies I want to watch” and more “What interests you?”
DP: Did Wang Naixun understand the movie, or did you need to explain a lot to him?
SV: I think he understood a great deal. He’s a very natural actor. Unlike the rest of the cast and the crew, he actually understands English and has been very good at the Q&As here at the festival with me. The audiences love him.
DP: How is it for you being at this festival?
SV: It’s just an honor being here. As an independent filmmaker it’s all about premiering my film at a festival such as this and getting an audience of people who are really hungry to watch movies. There really is a keen love of cinema in New York City that goes back generations. I can’t think of a better place to debut King of Peking.
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies and Jackie Robinson in Quotes.