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A New Comedy Looks Back at a Bygone Beijing

The forthcoming Mandarin-language comedy King of Peking takes the viewer back to Beijing in 1998. The sooty rooms, the boxy automobiles of just a few makes, models, and colors, and the alleyways crammed with shops hawking cheap home cooking and pirated movies on disc all recall the era when three filmmakers from markedly different backgrounds were growing up in big-city China just as the nation started its modern love affair with entertainment from elsewhere around the world.

In the feature length film coming soon to a festival near you, round-faced actor Zhao Jun plays Old Wang, a movie projectionist who roams the countryside, showing movies to Chinese villages. To seek his fortune and keep custody of his son, he moves to Beijing and gets a job as a janitor in a grand, state-run theater long used mostly to show propaganda films. Still unable to make ends meet, Wang turns to movie piracy, illegally copying the films the theater screens onto video discs sold for U.S.$1 a pop—a small fortune to a new arrival in the city. Old Wang represents hundreds like him in Chinese cities of the late 1990s, men and women who turned into scrappy urban entrepreneurs when their rural livelihoods disappeared and they jumped headlong into the burgeoning market economy. The film’s setting is slow dial-up-modem Beijing; pre-Olympics Beijing; Beijing before the glass-and-steel skyscrapers and luxury sports cars. To capture this feel, the movie was shot entirely in Zhuozhou, Hebei province, a sleepy exurb largely lagging behind the boom in the capital a two-hour drive away. A sprawling city, Beijing’s population today is approximately 20 million people, up from 12 million at the end of the 1990s when a rush of rural migrants flooded in to meet labor demands to fuel the building and tourism boom in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

For anybody living and working in China today, King of Peking offers a snapshot of a time before the boom, a jump back to the years of quick transition that would give rise to the Chinese billionaires who today are investing in gleaming multiplexes and action-packed blockbusters at home and abroad. The movie is also a look at the not-so-distant roots of many a modern Chinese moviegoer: the migrant laborers who paid pennies to play badly subtitled Hollywood films in the disc drives of shared personal computers.

Melbourne-born writer and director Sam Voutas grew up in the Beijing of the 1980s and ’90s, the son of Australian diplomats. Producer Melanie Ansley, born in Canada to a Chinese mother, was raised in Shanghai in the same period. Sam and Melanie are married and now live in Los Angeles, in an era when Hollywood studio executives are falling all over themselves to understand China and how its exploding film industry works. These days, Hollywood is awash in Chinese money. Tom Cruise action film Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation was funded partly by the moviemaking arm of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and by the dedicated movie channel of state-run broadcaster China Central Television. Real estate tycoon Wang Jianlin’s Wanda Group bought both the American movie theater chain AMC and Hollywood studio Legendary, which backed director Zhang Yimou’s first English-language film, The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Hollywood star and former governor of California, is making not one, but two films in China.

Chen Zheng

King of Peking Producer Jane Zheng (left), First Assistant Director Qin Yi (center), and Director Sam Voutas.

Before the red carpet stretched from Sunset Boulevard to the hip Beijing shopping streets of Sanlitun, before Chinese multiplexes outshone their California counterparts, illegal movie clubs set up in private apartments across China saw friends trading in everything from obscure cinema of Polish art house director Krzysztof Kieslowski to The Shawshank Redemption, priming the pump for the transpacific moviemaking flood now on the rise. Because Voutas and Ansley returned to Australia and Canada at least once a year, their entertainment isolation inside China in their teens and 20s made a lasting impression. They knew what they were missing and, back in China, they watched as their newly movie-mad friends scrambled to keep up.

“We were always so many steps behind what was happening in the rest of the world because we didn’t have the Internet, and we didn’t have access to the cultural things that were going on at the time. So you’d always find out a year late what was popular,” Voutas said over a fruit plate breakfast in Los Angeles. “You were always a little uncool.”

Chinese friends hosted home screenings of pirated, or daoban, VCDs and, later, DVDs, in rooms hung with pictures of Marilyn Monroe or Clark Gable. They screened discs burned by people just like King of Peking’s protagonist. “They often had two screening rooms,” recalled Ansley, a recent graduate of the film school at the University of Southern California and the co-executive director of the burgeoning professional network the China Hollywood Society. “They converted two rooms so they could do separate films at any one time: a double bill. It was this little room with just fold-out chairs and posters on the wall. It’s just somebody’s apartment. You just gotta know the right door to walk in.” They watched anything and everything, unfettered by the cap Beijing placed on imported films allowed to screen theatrically. Until 2012, only 20 films could be imported each year for screening in a movie theater. Most were from Hollywood and many were censored.

Angus Gibson

Crew members prepare for a take as actor Zhao Jun is wrapped in 35mm film on set.

Though 34 imports now make it into Chinese multiplexes each year, and there’s talk of raising that number further to meet demand for diversity, China still lacks a ratings system—no G, PG, or R to put the power of choice in the consumer’s hands. As such, Beijing’s official censors can bar films, both homegrown and imported, from theatrical distribution on a whim, and do so regularly from behind a government blind. Those films that make it past censors seldom depict anything sexual and definitely leave any anti-authoritarian themes on the cutting room floor. Ansley and Voutas’ first feature film together, Red Light Revolution, in which the actor Zhao stars as a Beijing-cab-driver-turned-sex-toy salesman, never made it to the big screen in 2012, despite being good enough to make the rounds of international film festivals as an official selection.

Just as Hollywood today must face compromising its creative control for fear of offending Chinese censors’ sensibilities, independent filmmakers such as Voutas and Ansley are ever more isolated from the mainstream in China. With their isolation, however, comes freedom, the satisfaction that the stories they’re telling are all theirs, and a recognition that good stories often finally find a way to their audience despite the challenges put up by censors and the language barrier.

Though Voutas’ spoken Chinese is strong (he also acted in Red Light Revolution, and has had small roles in big budget Chinese films such as City of Life and Death by Lu Chuan), he writes in English then has his screenplays translated to make sure the jokes land. He and Ansley work closely with producer Jane Zheng, a Beijinger by birth, who helps keep the expat filmmaking couple honest.

“They’re part of the community, but they’re not Chinese and they’re bringing their perspective. This is still quite different from my perspective,” Zheng said over Skype from Beijing. “Their understanding of people or interpretation of their actions is different.”

Zheng said she and Ansley and Voutas initially worried about the censors but then decided not to submit their film for the censorship and approval needed for a theatrical screening license. They figured King of Peking’s unvarnished look at the late-1990s economic hustle many Chinese did to get ahead was too small and unglamorous a topic to appeal to Chinese multiplex owners who are themselves now hustling to recoup the costs of skyrocketing rent and high-tech projection equipment. . “We all agreed that our film wouldn’t be released theatrically since the market is all about big directors and actors and 3D,” Zheng said. “It’s not fair, not only for us. A lot of films suffer this problem.”

Angus Gibson

Zhao Jun plays a traveling projectionist. In the 1980s and ’90s, traveling projectionists commonly toured China, screening movies to those without access to cinemas.

A theatrical release in China is coveted for the chance it represents to make serious money, even as the decade-long moviegoing boom has lately slowed. Right from the start, the King of Peking team was pretty set on trying for distribution online and overseas only. “Foreign distribution is not as good as even a few years ago,” Zheng said. “Online buying from big Chinese portals is the key. They have money and they need content.” China currently has more than 720 million citizens accessing the Internet regularly, whereas the nation had just over 31,000 movie screens at the end of 2015, relative to the roughly 40,000 serving the U.S., where the population is a quarter of the size.

Selection by an internationally-recognized film festival can help boost a film’s selling price to the Chinese web portals, Zheng said. When Red Light Revolution was streamed on Tudou, which has since merged with rival Youku to become Youku Tudou, the film was promoted as a Spring Festival feature, a movie that Chinese families could gather around on Lunar New Year. Voutas and Ansley said it has streamed more than six million times.

Thus far, the just-finished King of Peking has yet to land a festival berth in- or outside China. What the comedy has the chance to do if it manages to break out from the Chinese Internet and land a screening where Hollywood professionals studying up on China actually go to watch movies (such as the Sundance and Berlin festivals), is to school them in what life was like in China when their new-found Chinese co-producers, backers, and even owners, were growing up in Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, or Dalian. If you were Chinese and living in China in the 1980s and ’90s, seeing movies was still hard to do. Yet the Chinese audience was unstoppable in its desire to connect with stories from the other side of what has since become the Great Firewall, the modern day digital equivalent of the Iron Curtain. 

Actor Zhao’s rural projectionist-turned-movie-theater-janitor-turned-DVD-pirate is just meeting a demand when he secrets reels of film out of a Beijing theater under his jumpsuit, spooled around his fireplug-like frame. He is a walking metaphor, too, for the creative process in China, governed as it is by a nervous, unelected government dominated by a single party. When the movie pirate tells his son, whom he has enlisted in illegal DVD production, that his mother can’t know what they’re up to, the boy asks, “Why?”

“It’d be better as a surprise,” Zhao says.

“Mum doesn’t like surprises,” his son says.

“That’s why we shouldn’t tell her at all,” says Zhao.

In China, where free expression—whether it’s through innovation and entrepreneurial sprit or gutsy storytelling—can quickly land perpetrators in hot water, whole generations have learned to act first and ask for permission later.

With that defiance comes risk, both financial and, sometimes, political. Shot for more than twice the budget of Red Light Revolution, which was, Ansley said, “less than Star Wars,” King of Peking got initial funding from a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign and took three years to make. (Full disclosure: in early 2015, this writer donated RMB 88 and got, as thanks, a brown promotional t-shirt featuring a gold rooster atop a film reel and the tag line: “A Real Film About Fake Movies.”)

The political risk inherent in King of Peking lies in its frank and funny portrayal of a special brand of Chinese irreverence displayed toward the intellectual property rights of a handful of powerful film studios across the world’s widest ocean. The Motion Picture Association of America long railed at China on behalf of its member studios whose films, for decades, were traded like baseball cards at an alarming rate. Of course, it was those very daoban discs that helped whet the Chinese appetite for the Hollywood movies that today, when screened in a state-of-the-art Beijing multiplex, can sometimes help Los Angeles-based studios gross more in China than they do at home on a picture-by-picture basis.

Over breakfast in Los Angeles, Ansley said that she and Voutas had often been asked why they weren’t making films about skyscrapers and rich people and the wealth and glitz of the modern China story. In answer, she said she often passed a Chinese woman, toddler in tow, selling pirated DVDs on the edge of a canal in their Beijing neighborhood.

“We watched her child go from two months to over a year, start walking,” Ansley said. “Average people are a very interesting part of the story of who makes movies in China, the big explosion. Rather than executives and new screens and big theaters and all that kind of thing, for us, average people are an interesting part of where that story begins, looking at what part they play in that whole chain.”