The Liquidator (心理罪:城市之光, Xu Jizhou, 2017)

The Liquidator posterGiven a strangely ‘80s nonsensical two word title, Xu Jizhou’s The Liquidator (心理罪:城市之光, Xīnlǐ Zuì: Chéngshì Zhī Guāng) is a retro throwback to the lurid macho pulp which has largely faded from the crime procedural since its ‘90s heyday. Adapted from a novel by Lei Mi, the film follows last year’s Guilty of Mind as the second in the Fang Mu series only this time the eccentric profiler is played by marquee star Deng Chao rather than Guilty Mind’s Li Yifeng or Chen Ruo Xuan who starred in the Fang Mu TV drama, Evil Minds. A pulpy battle of wits between a crazed vigilante and a world weary cop, The Liquidator is already treading on some overly familiar territory but its main target is the rule of law apparently under threat of mob justice now that China too has entered the social media age.

Fang Mu (Deng Chao) is no longer a police officer after becoming the prime suspect in the disappearance of a man who escaped justice through judicial corruption, but he’s pulled back into the law enforcement fold when young policewoman Mi Nan (Cecilia Liu) is dispatched to get his profiling opinion on a difficult murder case. Calling himself “The Light of the City”, a vigilante killer is already amassing a collection of dedicated online followers thanks to his choice of targets which, to put it bluntly, are not law breakers just terrible people that most would like to get revenge on for one reason or another.

Originally reluctant, Fang Mu is soon hooked on the case only to realise that the crime scenes are being created entirely for his benefit – the killer is attempting to pull him into a battle of wits and taking innocent lives to do it. As it transpires the killer’s name, Light of the City, is inspired by something Fang Mu said in his graduation speech to the effect that the police are the light that shines in the darkness. The killer thinks the law doesn’t go far enough – his targets are bullying teachers, impious sons, and greedy lawyers, the immoral rather than the criminal. He exposes their transgressions online and then allows “netizens” to have their say. Netizens, as they have often been in the “real” world, are not a particularly understanding bunch and are firmly behind the “entertainment” the killer is providing, even down to the decision to live stream a murder.

Fang Mu’s defining trait is his liminal status as a law enforcement officer often pulled towards the dark side – hence why many of his colleagues think it’s perfectly possible that he’s guilty of the crime that got him kicked off the force. The vigilante’s “plan” is to pull him over the line by forcing Fang Mu to execute The City of Light and thereby become the thing he most fears. The Liquidator posits that a robust judicial system free from interference from both government and people is a prerequisite of a well functioning society and the police must be the shining beacons of these laws – if not even law enforcement obeys the law, then all is lost.

What transpires is a battle of minds between the brainy Fang Mu and the psychotic killer, but it’s also a battle for the soul of “society” which ought to place compassion and rationality over the sensationalism of trial by media and arbitrary mob justice. The killer works out his frustrations by proxy through attacking those who committed the same “crimes” which have led to their feelings of frustration and humiliation – chief among them being Fang Mu who has, apparently, offended solely in his continued excellence, but the killer’s personal vengeance is harsh and unforgiving, handing down a death sentence simply for unpleasant or anti-social behaviour.

Beginning in a promising vein, Xu nevertheless introduces his dedicated female cop only to sideline her in favour of Fang Mu before turning her into a mild love interest, potential victim, and sometime comic relief. Filled with macho histrionics (including, at one point, a gun fired in the air followed by a manly wail of grief), The Liquidator is an old fashioned action drama filtered through pulp noir and ‘90s horror with its grimy walls and dingy basements, but it straddles a fine line between ridiculous slasher serial killer thriller and serious cerebral procedural, landing somewhere around heroic bloodshed without the bromance. Ridiculous and melodramatic, Xu’s debut feature boasts excellent production design and innovative photography, but its slick aesthetic cannot overcome the more outlandish elements of the otherwise generic script.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia

Original trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)

Namiya (解憂雜貨店, Han Jie, 2017)

Namiya posterKeigo Higashino is almost certainly best known for his crime novels and in particular his most famous detective, Galileo, whose exploits have spawned a successful TV drama series and a fair few cinematic adaptations including the international bestseller, The Devotion of Suspect X. One might expect a writer of mystery novels to be a fierce rationalist, but Higashino occasionally dabbles in the fantastic – The Miracles of the Namiya General Store is more or less a nostalgia fest praising the pre-bubble Japan, implying that the modern world is colder and less kind than the aspiring society of 1979. Adapted for the Chinese market by Han Jie, Namiya (解憂雜貨店, Jiě Yōu Zá Huò Diàn) retains the corner shop where time stands still but locates it in 1993, which is not so much a significant date save being 25 years in the past.

On New Year’s Eve 2017, three teens break into a woman’s home with the idea of causing some damage, but the event goes south when she comes home early and one of the three decides to tie her up and steal a bunch of her stuff. Having gone further than they meant to, the trio wind up in an unfamiliar part of town when the car they’ve stolen runs out of petrol. An improbably quaint, apparently disused corner shop attracts their attention but when they break in to shelter for the night they discover that this is no ordinary store. A ghostly miasma gradually creeps its way in and the three youngsters find themselves answering a collection of letters meant for the store’s owner written in 1993 but only dropping through the letter box now. They funny thing is, they get almost immediate replies.

As one of the teens points out, they weren’t even born in 1993 – this store might as well be from 1793 as far as they’re concerned. Though it drips with nostalgia for a simpler time, Namiya treads (understandably) more carefully in painting early ‘90s Beijing and its rural backwater setting, strenuously avoiding any mention of politics and characterising China’s economic development as an entirely good thing despite the troubles the three teens at the centre have been subject to throughout their apparently difficult lives.

The letter writers have various problems but each in someway relates to being a little lost, a little bit confused about how to move forward in life. A frustrated musician (Lee Hong-chi) whose career is not taking off wants to know whether he should give up and come home, a little boy has a bad relationship with his go-getter parents who have lost all their money and got into trouble with loan sharks, and a melancholy bar hostess (Hao Lei) wants to know if she should become the mistress of a gangster who promises to set her up in a shop that would get her out of her dead end life and still enable her to support her family. The kids are not really qualified to offer any kind of real life advice, with sensitive Xiaobo (Karry Wang) and plucky Tong Tong (Dilraba Dilmurat) reacting in broadly sympathetic terms while the sullen Jie takes a hardline moralist stance in which he just wants to write angry letters to everyone telling them they’re doing everything wrong.

Jie has his own reasons for being so angry, especially as one of the letters touches a nerve in his own personal history but his ambivalence was at one point shared by Papa Namiya (Jackie Chan) himself after he feared his treasured advice might have ended up having a negative effect on people’s lives. Papa Namiya tells the troubled little boy to stick with his parents no matter what because family is the most important thing in a person’s life which might be true much of the time, but not when the parents actively endanger their child. What he finally reassures himself with is that his advice was largely meaningless because most people have already made up their minds what they’re going to do, they just want someone to help them feel like they’re doing the right thing. In fact, no one really follows Papa Namiya’s advice anyway, but the kids are able to make a concrete change when they reveal the economic realities of modern China to a young hopeful who then uses the knowledge to build an international business empire (but makes sure to pay it forward whilst paying tribute to their roots by committing to sponsor an orphanage in need of renovation/expansion).

The slightly awkward message Namiya leaves behind is that dreams come true when people work hard to achieve them but that the young are also free to forge their own destinies, that the world is, for them, infinite and filled with boundless possibility. Optimistic and inspiring as it is, it isn’t terribly realistic and does rather imply that those who haven’t made it are either lazy or dishonest as echoed in the mildly moralistic tone taken with the bar hostess’ dilemma or the odiousness of the corrupt businessman and his failure to protect his family from his own mistakes. Moral judgements and naivety aside, Namiya is an otherwise heartwarming, deliberately uncynical New Year tale which does its best to engender hope for the future in an otherwise cold and unforgiving month.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)

Youth (芳华, Feng Xiaogang, 2017)

youth posterOn the surface of things, one might be forgiven for thinking that Feng Xiaogang, “China’s Spielberg” – the director of such fluffy hits as If You Are the One and the prestige picture The Banquet, might not be the one to look to for nuanced takes on the state of his nation but, as he proved with the irony filled I am Not Madame Bovary, there has always been a persistent resistance in his superficially crowd-pleasing filmography. The exact nature and extent of that resistance is however harder to assess. Youth (芳华, Fāng huá), Feng’s latest historically probing epic, made headlines when its mainland release was blocked at short notice immediately before its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and in some respects it’s easy to see why it may have raised an eyebrow or two at the censor’s board. A literal story of “youth” and the various ways that the concept becomes romanticised even when one’s own coming of age took place in otherwise difficult times, Feng’s film is also the story of modern China, baptised in the fire of the Cultural Revolution only to finally succumb to the consumerist one 15 years later.

Narrated by bystander Suizi (Zhong Chuxi), later a successful author apparently looking back on her own “youth” with a writerly eye, the tale begins in the early 1970s with two pillars of the arts division of the People’s Liberation Army. Suizi informs us the the protagonists of this story are Lui Feng (Huang Xuan) – a model soldier, and Xiaoping (Miao Miao) – a poor girl mercilessly tormented by everyone throughout her entire life. Xiaoping’s birth father has long been languishing in a re-education camp but as she’s taken her step-father’s name, Liu Feng assures her that he’s kept her bad class background off her record and will make sure no one else knows about it.

Performing propaganda ballets, the arts division is at its zenith at the height of the Cultural Revolution. The troop as a whole enjoys extreme privilege – they are well fed and cared for, evade the dangerous front line work many other members of the armed forces are subject to, and receive the respect due to them as the embodiment of a revolutionary ideal. They are, however, still guilty of the various hypocrisies coded into the system. Though many of the dancers have family members with “bad class backgrounds”, undergoing re-education or otherwise better not mentioned, the top guys and girls are the ones with parents high up in the party who use their untouchable status to paper over cracks in their own development with inherited superiority.

Lui Feng is perhaps an aberration. Nicknamed “Lei Feng” – a mythical figure created for propaganda purposes to embody the “ideal” revolutionary soldier in his selfless dedication to his comrades and communist virtues, Lui Feng is indeed a model party member whose goodness and kindness know no bounds. Unlike Lei Feng, however, he is a real man of flesh and blood not some far off and untouchable god. Having sanctified him in this way, the collective has effectively raised Lui Feng up to an unfair and unattainable ideal and is then “betrayed” on realising that Lui Feng is a man with a man’s hopes and desires. Lui Feng’s transgression is inappropriate to be sure but also somehow innocent in its naivety and his counter betrayal by the system to which he has dedicated his life all the more difficult to bear because of the unfair deification his better qualities have earned him.

Xiaoping meanwhile, who expected only betrayal, betrays the system through passive resistance in resentment of the way it has treated her friend. “Abandoned” by the collective which is the arts troop, Xiaoping exiles herself from a society she thinks has little need of her yet she then continues to serve it fully as a frontline nurse. The “youthful” idealism of Lui Feng and Xiaoping is tested as they find themselves caught up in a far off war while their former comrades dance around with wooden swords on a painted stage. Wounded in body and mind, the pair continue onwards even as their nation conspires to leave them behind.

Shifting into the ‘90s and then the 21st century, Feng’s messages become muddier and harder to grasp. In one sense what is celebrated is “youth” itself which, in this case, happened to take place against the backdrop of terrible events (albeit it ones from which many of the protagonists save Lui Feng and Xiaoping were largely shielded) enabling the growth of a generational family destroyed by a change in the political wind. It is however hard not to infer that everything was better during the turbulent ‘70s in which the delusion of innocence, if not its actual existence, was easier to bear than the soulless march into the future of Coca-Cola signs, Transformers toys and fathers who never come home because they’re too busy making money. Feng’s heroes are the ones who exiled themselves from the reality of China as a modern economic superpower, holding fast to their innate senses of honour and justice, yet in this Feng does to them exactly what he criticises his society for doing – he makes them martyrs, mythologises them as embodiments of revolutionary ideals, a pair of real life Lei Fengs all over again. In telling a story of how the revolution betrays and is betrayed, Feng makes the heroes emerge damaged but unbroken, chaste children trapped by the “innocence” of the pre-capitalist age, but whether their survival is victory or defeat remains unclear. 


Youth is currently screening at selected cinemas across the UK courtesy of CineAsia.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

Reset (逆时营救, Chang, 2017)

reset posterTime travel – the solution to all one’s problems. Or is it? Chinese thriller Reset (逆时营救, Nì shí yíngjiù) is helmed by Korean director Chang (AKA Yoon Hong-seung) but it’s also produced by Jackie Chan and is very much in the vein of his recent projects in its non-sensical sci-fi setup and troubling conservative messages. Reset casts a female scientist as its heroine but uses the crisis to explore her ongoing guilt as a single mother with an intense workload who has chosen to dedicate herself to both her work and her son without remarrying. Despite the action packed drama in which Xia Tian plots, shoots, and stabs her way back to her son, the message which is ultimately delivered is that you can’t go back in time and mothers should just give up everything to be with their kids 24/7.

In the near future, the existence of parallel worlds has been confirmed but early research into time travel has been derailed after test subjects transported between universes descended into mindless violence destroying each other and valuable data. Xia Tian (Yang Mi) works for one of the big companies still investigating parallel world theory and has just made a major breakthrough in “projecting” test subjects into the recent past. In order to steal her research for a rival company, Xia Tian’s young son Doudou is kidnapped by mysterious men who give her a limited amount of time to hand over the top secret documents. Xia Tian’s first attempt to rescue her son fails, leading her to make personal use of her findings and travel into the past to change the future.

Reset starts as it means to go on with Xia Tian having a heart to heart with her boss and mentor (King Shih-Chieh) who reminds her that it’s been ages since she broke up with Doudou’s dad and its high time she find someone new. Xia Tian, embarrassed, says she’s dedicating herself entirely to Doudou and doesn’t need anyone else. The bond between mother and son is the focus of the film (though Xia Tian’s clinginess may become an ongoing problem as Doudou grows up) as Xia Tian travels through time to ensure the survival of her little boy no matter how morally compromised she may eventually become.

Use of the time machine apparently has certain side effects, as the first experimenters discovered. The original Xia Tian was a sweet, innocent woman way out of her depth with these fearsome, amoral gangsters but Xia Tian 2 is much more savvy, chloroforming the “nice” version of herself and taking over with the power of hindsight to help her get out of the building before all hell breaks loose. Xia Tian 3, however, has taken things too far, acting without any kind of concession to morality and suddenly becoming some kind of major action star with special forces training for no given reason. There might be a clever point about Xia Tian’s various conflicting roles but Reset doesn’t want to make it so much as have Xia Tian help/hinder herself in a selfish tug of love to save little Doudou who just wants to go home to his mum.

Non-sensical as it is, Reset picks up when it hits its action heavy final third in which Yang Mi, more often seen in sweetly romantic roles, acquits herself well enough as a fiery action star filled with maternal rage. The various layers of the resets generally hang together as the three Xia Tians cross each other’s paths to get Doudou to safety, only to belatedly realise that only one of them can really stay with him forever.

Maternal love is the machine which drives the story forward but it’s also the most problematic element in its partial insistence than Doudou’s fate is somehow Xia Tian’s fault for daring to use her finely tuned brain for the common good rather than just staying home and reading comics with her little boy like a mother should. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the lesson is women shouldn’t work, rather than corporations are inherently untrustworthy and that time travel creates problems for everyone (not least editors and scriptwriters) and should generally be avoided. Despite high production values, interesting production design, and an impressive (or is that three impressive) performance(s) from Yang Mi, Reset’s strong action credentials cannot compensate for its unpalatable conservative message and non-sensical science fiction narrative.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Angels Wear White (嘉年华, Vivian Qu, 2017)

©22 HOURS FILMS

angels wear whiteChinese cinema has been preoccupied with stories of unfairness and systematic corruption for quite some time but they’ve rarely been as difficult to process and horribly universal as Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White (嘉年华, Jiāniánhuá). A storm of conflicting social attitudes leaves young women open to the most terrible of manipulations while well placed men are infinitely protected by a system of deference and complicity. Women must be pure, angelic and draped in neutral white – a concept so deeply entrenched that it barely needs manipulating to be used as a tool of control.

Teenage runaway Mia (Wen Qi) is working illegally at a seaside hotel. Wandering the beach before work, she’s rudely shoved out of the way by two hyperactive little girls who want to take a selfie underneath a colossal statue of Marilyn Monroe in her classic pose from the Seven Year Itch. Meanwhile, several sets of newlyweds are busy taking romantic photos in the picturesque though currently overcast coastal environment. Mia spots the girls again later when she is (illicitly) covering reception for a colleague and they’re brought in by a middle-aged man. Mia finds the man suspicious but seeing as he books two rooms lets it go. She pauses slightly when the still over excited girls order themselves a few beers, but delivers the drinks and leaves the girls to it. Remaining worried she keeps her eyes on the CCTV and eventually spots the man trying to enter the girls’ room but does nothing other than record it on her smartphone.

The two girls, Xiaowen (Zhou Meijou) and Xinxin (Jiang Xinyue), are so young they don’t even quite understand what’s happened to them except for a lingering feeling that they’ve been involved in something bad that will get them into trouble. Xiaowen, on the surface at least the more affected by the incident, has a difficult relationship with her parents which leaves her with no one to confide in and no one to defend her. Xinxin eventually tells her mother what happened and we realise the perpetrator is a police chief and the boss of Xinxin’s father who had made him a godparent as a way of currying favour at work leaving Xinxin’s mother to make the reasonable accusation that he has, in fact, sold his daughter to his boss for the prospect of career advancement. Where Xinxin’s mother is angry with her husband but apparently solicitous for her injured daughter, Xiaowen’s mother projects her own guilt for her neglectful parenting onto hers whom she slaps for apparently “slutty” behaviour, cutting her hair short like a boy’s and taking away her pretty dresses and makeup.

Sitting alone in the waiting room outside, Xinxin asks Xiaowen what a “hymen” is while her mother can be heard wailing loudly from inside the consultation room. The issue becomes less that a predatory man has caused irreparable harm to two innocent young girls, but that their honour has been destroyed along with prospects of future marriage now that they are no longer virgins. The problem is not that the girls are not believed or even that they are ignored. On the contrary, their story seems to be accepted to the point that it must be erased. The police chief himself remains unseen but his underling goes to great lengths to hush the case up, attempting to pay off Xinxin’s parents with the promise of healthy financial support on the condition that they drop the charges to avoid embarrassment to the chief but also, it is implied, to Xinxin who will avoid the social stigma of being the girl involved in the high profile rape case. Eventually reuniting with her father, Xiaowen finds a defender but even his outrage is not enough to see justice done as the full weight of a corrupt system comes together to crush his little girl for simply continuing to tell the truth.

It’s easy to ask why Mia did nothing to prevent such an obviously inappropriate situation but then again she is just a girl herself, not so much older than Xinxin and Xiaowen, and would not have been able to help beyond knocking the door to try and scare the man off. She should not have been manning reception in the first place, and is afraid of getting into trouble because she has no ID papers and is working illegally. Because of way the system works in China, Mia would need to go back to her home town get a genuine ID card which she seems reluctant to do leaving her open to multiple kinds of exploitation as she considers the best way to buy a fake one that will allow her to continue working in more legitimate businesses. Her life has been hard and she has come regard compassion as a weakness.

Mia also has to put up with the worrying advances from her friend and big sister figure Lily’s (Peng Jing) boyfriend, Jian (Wang Yuexin), who openly asks if she’s a virgin because he knows people who will pay good money for that kind of thing. Even Lily who seems more worldly wise is not immune to Jian’s heartlessness, later coming into work with rope burns on her wrists and dark glasses to hide a black eye. Before returning to her home village, Lily visits a clinic for painful surgery to reconstruct her hymen so that she can still get married in overly conservative China.

The statue of Marilyn Monroe seems incongruous enough but speaks to all of those same double standards which continue to disrupt the lives of these young women as she girlishly pushes down the skirt on her pure white dress, awkwardly posed on her matching bright white heels. Marilyn is sexualised innocence at its most uncomfortable. The only real defendant the girls have is a dogged lawyer who treats them with kindness, listening to their story with patience and respect in an attempt to uncover the real truth aside from what anyone may want to hear to think they are supposed to say.

Asked by an almost outsmarted policeman why she can’t find something more productive to do, the lawyer replies that there are simply “too many of these kinds of cases”. “Justice” remains a hollow ideal, an essentially fake construct designed to maintain the position of the powerful rather than protect the weak. Unrelentingly bleak but with the faintest glimmers of hope offered by Mia’s final decision, the female solidarity of the determined lawyer, and the newly rediscovered relationship of Xiaowen and her dad, Angels Wear White is a necessarily difficult and challenging piece but one which arrives at just the right time trailing a series of uncomfortable in its wake.


Screened at BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Clip (Mandarin with English subtitles)

Manhunt (追捕, John Woo, 2017)

Manhunt30 years ago John Woo was one of Hong Kong’s most bankable directors. The father of heroic bloodshed, Woo’s bullet ballet sent shockwaves through action cinema not only in his home country but around the world. Unsurprisingly Hollywood came calling and Woo was one of the first Asian directors to enjoy mainstream US success with ‘90s hits Broken Arrow and Face/Off before his overseas career began to stall and he eventually returned to Hong Kong directing period epics Red Cliff and The Crossing. Manhunt (追捕, Zhuībǔ) is intended as a kind return to source as Woo gets back into the groove of his beautifully choreographed ‘80s action hits but intentionally or otherwise he sails dangerously close to self parody with a mix of Big Pharma conspiracy and wrong man thriller.

Chinese corporate lawyer Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu) is a trusted employee of a Japanese pharmaceuticals company but is shortly to be transferred overseas, much to CEO Sakai’s (Jun Kunimura) displeasure – Du knows too much about the company’s less than transparent operations. Sakai sets up a honey trap to convince Du to stay but before it can spring Du is accosted by another woman, Mayumi (Qi Wei), who wants to talk to him about a difficult case three years previously in which an employee ended up committing suicide. After talking with Mayumi, Du goes home but the next thing he remembers is waking up in bed next to a dead woman. Du does the right thing and calls the cops, but the cops are working for Big Pharma and soon he finds himself on the run while maverick police chief Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) and two female assassins (Ha Ji-won & Angeles Woo) try to track him down.

Manhunt is inspired by the 1976 film starring Ken Takakura which was one of the first non-native movies to open in China following the Cultural Revolution. Woo apparently made the film as a kind of tribute to the actor after he passed away in 2014, but he takes his cues from the source novel by Juko Nishimura rather than the Takakura film and the 2017 Manhunt shares little in common with the 1976 version other than a general plot outline involving a man on the run and unethical practices in the pharmaceuticals trade. Du Qiu is not a stuffy, by the book, prosecutor but a compromised employee of a shady organisation who is oblivious to his own complicity in its extremely unpalatable way of doing business.

Despite this, Du Qiu is just as lucky as Takakura’s Morioka in that everyone he meets immediately wants to help him. Even sworn enemies with their hearts set on revenge eventually wind up joining team Du as they each descend on the pharmaceuticals research laboratory where the deadly secrets will be revealed. Woo returns to his heroic bloodshed roots in allowing dogged policeman Yamura and the increasingly confused Du to form an odd couple buddy duo which begins with spiky one liners and ends with becoming one as each places his not handcuffed hand on the same pistol to take down a few bad guys through the power of togetherness.

Woo’s action credentials remain unchanged as he races from set piece to set piece from the opening surprise massacre to Du’s subway chase escape, jet ski race, and mansion showdown before getting anywhere near the endgame of the research lab. Perfectly choreographed, the sequences bear out Woo’s distinctive sense of humour while also poking fun at his back catalogue through a series of homages including an entire coop full of white doves just waiting for their chance to fly.

Set entirely in Japan, Manhunt shifts between Japanese and Mandarin though it has to be said that the film suffers from its reliance on English which is often poorly delivered and deliberately stylised to ape classic action movie one liners the like of which have been out of fashion for two decades. Woo neatly sends himself up with an opening discussion of “old movies” allowing one of the film’s two female assassins to develop an odd fascination with Du which leads to her eventual awakening from company brainwashing, but he also pays his dues with the theme music to Sato’s 1976 version playing over the first scene of mass bloodshed. Woo may have slipped into self parody with his deliberately over the top theatrics, but he has fun doing it and his gleeful self skewering proves extremely hard to resist.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

King of Peking (京城之王, Sam Voutas, 2017)

king of peking posterListen up, kids. Things were very different in the ‘90s when the internet didn’t really exist and people still queued round the block to get into giant single screen cinemas. Sam Voutas’ second film, King of Peking (京城之王, Jīngchéng Zhī Wáng), is an homage to these more innocent times taking place in a small corner of Beijing where a divorced father and his son are a charming double act of itinerant projectionists screening “Hollywood movies” for a dollar in the town square. Big Wong and Little Wong see themselves as “movie people” but their days are definitely numbered.

Big Wong (Jun Zhao) owns a Soviet era projector and a few reels of not quite recent but not yet classic movies. While Big Wong sets up a giant sheet and readies the reels, Little Wong runs round town “advertising” the event by shouting as loud as he can. The duo get a fair amount of customers but, as one loudmouth points out, this movie came out ages ago and he already has a copy on video at home – who wants to pay a dollar to watch it on a sheet in the square? This is also a question Wong’s ex-wife wants to know the answer to when she unceremoniously turns up and lays into Wong for “exploiting” their son. Wong’s wife left the boy behind claiming she couldn’t look after him but has since changed her mind. She wants an unfeasible amount of money or Little Wong. Little Wong wants to stay with his dad. Finding the money seemed a difficult prospect to begin with but when the projector catches fire and they have to give everyone their money back it seems all but impossible.

Voutas’ film is a father son drama in which the pair start off as firm friends – nicknaming each other Riggs and Murtaugh just like the Lethal Weapon heroes. Curiously enough, Lethal Weapon 4 is one of the films playing in the on screen cinema with a hand painted Chinese poster which places Rene Russo centre stage with Gibson and Glover on either side. Somewhat surprisingly, Jet Li does not feature. Sadly their father/son relationship is set to deteriorate ahead of schedule as Big Wong comes up with a plan which is intended to pay off his wife and get her to leave him and Little Wong alone. Taking note of the rude customer’s comments, Big Wong gets an idea, a set of DVD recorders, and a camcorder he can stuff into the penguin shaped bin in the cinema to rip off the latest releases, design covers, and sell them on DVD on street corners. Pretty soon, the Wongs are ruling the streets with dad’s innovative business model and son’s ruthless sales patter.

Of course, all of this is very morally dubious. Little Wong doesn’t quite like it, but is won over by his dad’s enthusiasm and, after all, aren’t they doing it because they love movies and want to share them with more people? Well, kind of, but it’s mostly for the money and Big Wong’s scheming soon works against him. Unlike his dad, Little Wong’s great love is for volcanoes, and Big Wong said he’d help him build one but he’s always too busy with the “business”. In becoming successful in his plan, Big Wong has forgotten why he started it in the first place and is too slow to see how his moral laxity is affecting the development of his son’s character.

Voutas avoids a neatly happy ending, going for something more realistic but also heartwarming in its own way as father and son end up understanding each other a little better but remain conscious of the growing distance between them. A tribute to ‘90s Chinese cinema with its oversaturated colour schemes, makeshift production budgets and essential red curtain opening, King of Peking is a warmhearted nostalgia trip filled with strange characters somehow left behind by China’s increasing modernisation such as the very young security guard at the cinema who talks about “work units” being a family and barks at his ushers as if they were a revolutionary cadre about to head off into battle. The security guard, officiously checking tickets, asks one customer for his “purpose of visit” to which he replies “for enjoyment and to forget all my poor life choices”. Big Wong has made a few poor life choices of his own and not all of them can be repaired through the magic of cinema, but as King of Peking proves the movie may soon be over but the memories last a lifetime.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)