On King of Peking, now on Netflix, and its director’s decision to find his audience online

Baradwaj Rangan

July 12, 2018 11:38:14 IST

A few readers asked if I could – at times – write about foreign films that are more easily available than something that plays at film festivals. One obvious solution is to look at streaming platforms, but the foreign films there are hard to find. Take Netflix. When you click on “Films,” there’s a drop-down box labelled “Genres” – but “Foreign Film” is not a genre. The closest you get is “International,” and that’s a catch-all category for non-Indian films. So you get everything from a star-heavy Hollywood drama like Sully to a sportstar-heavy documentary like Cristiano Ronaldo: The World at His Feet. And even when you search for a foreign film by name – say, you type in “sand storm,” in order to find the 2016 Israeli drama – the “More Like This” option that pops up below brings up films more on the basis of theme than language.

So I try to watch for articles that show what’s new on Netflix (and other platforms), which is how I know the devastating Blue Valentine is now available for streaming, as is King of Peking, which is about a single-parent father trying to make it big in the movie-projection business with the help of his young son. It sounds like the very recipe for cuteness, especially when you hear the characters are called Big Wong (Zhao Jun) and Little Wong (Wang Naixun), and that they were “like partners from old Westerns.” Or the Lethal Weapon films. Big Wong and Little Wong call themselves Riggs and Murtaugh, after the Mel Gibson and Danny Glover characters in those Hollywood blockbusters. Sample line: “This is Riggs and Murtaugh’s secret headquarters.”

The dialogue, too, is cutesy. “How’d you like to be a partner in ‘King of Peking’?” the father asks. “Is that a restaurant?” the son replies. “It’s a movie studio, named after us,” says the father. (Their last name means ‘king’.) The son asks, “Who’ll be the king?” The father says, “Me. You’ll be my next in line. We’ll be like Warner Brothers.” The son asks, “What grade are they in?” Says the father, “They don’t go to your school.” Awww! But scratch the surface, and there’s only desperation. In a way, King of Peking is a companion piece to Life is Beautiful, the Italian Oscar-winner, directed by and starring Roberto Benigni. The latter – also the story of a father and son duo – was criticised for making the Holocaust “a cinematic device to provide the bitter background for [Benigni’s] own sweet charm,” as Alan A Stone wrote in The Boston Globe. Something similar could be said about King of Peking.

Seen “logically,” King of Peking is reprehensible. Big Wong is broke. His ramshackle projection business – basically a white sheet, a projector, a few chairs – is ceding way to video cassettes. (The film is set in 1997, about the time the mainland was reunited with Hong Kong.) But instead of entrusting Little Wong to his mother’s care (she has a stable job), Big Wong cussedly holds on, making the boy work under him. His ex-wife rightly calls it “child labour.” Reprehensible, right? But we, in the audience, don’t see it that way, for films aren’t just viewed “logically,” but also “emotionally” – and what we sense is a father who hasn’t evolved with the times. Big Wong needs to be taught several lessons, yes, but he isn’t evil – merely clueless. And the film keeps calling him out on it, so that we don’t have to.

It’s an interesting little film, and its behind-the-scenes story is equally fascinating. The director is Sam Voutas, an Australian settled in Beijing – King of Peking is his second film. I haven’t seen his first, titled Red Light Revolution and released in 2010, but its Rotten Tomatoes score is a dismal 33 percent, and Philip French, in the Guardian, called it “a naive sex comedy.” He added, “Not surprisingly, Voutas’s inept movie has yet to find a Chinese distributor. Surprisingly, it has found one here.” King of Peking doesn’t have a Rotten Tomatoes score yet, as it has just one critic’s review (Kimber Myers, Los Angeles Times). But get this: Voutas never aimed for a theatrical release.

In an interview with Radii, an online magazine that covers culture and life in China, Voutas said, “On Red Light Revolution, even though we did do theatrical distribution in a few countries, our audience in the end was mostly online, via our China release deal with [streaming site] Tudou. So that really laid the groundwork for how we approached [King of Peking]. For independent film nowadays, the internet is really where you’re going to find your audience. So getting the film released by Netflix, or a similar platform, has been in the DNA of this project from the get-go. We viewed our film festival run as our theatrical run – if people wanted to see the movie in the cinema, there were festival screenings to go to... The holy grail for us was a large internet release.”

But if it plays on a small screen, is it still... cinema? Earlier this year, Steven Spielberg (see clip above) spoke about how American studios were mostly releasing guaranteed blockbusters, and that the smaller films were going to Amazon and Netflix. He said, “Once you commit to a television format, you are a ‘TV movie’.” Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories – both by Netflix – made news, for similar reasons, at Cannes last year: Given where they released, are they, you know, cinema, or aren’t they? Martin Scorsese probably has the answer. His next film, The Irishman, will have a limited theatrical run before being available worldwide on Netflix, which acquired the expensive production after other studios balked. I don’t think anything by Scorsese cannot be, you know, cinema.

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (south).

Updated Date: Jul 12, 2018 19:24 PM