MIFF 2017: King of Peking is a loving ode to the 'glory days' of DVD piracy
The latest film from Sam Voutas was inspired by a moment that might well have destroyed a lesser man.
It was 2012, and the first feature by the Canberra-born, LA-based 39-year-old had been out in Britain for all of a week when he passed a street stall in Beijing selling pirated DVD copies of it.
"They hadn't just lifted the artwork," he says. "They'd done their own artwork and created their own imaginary ideal cast list. They had Tom Hiddlestone and Emily Blunt in it."
Of course, Red Light Revolution – a comedy-drama about a down-at-heel man who opens a sex shop in Beijing – had no such names. It was a scam in every way imaginable.
But instead of running to the lawyers, Voutas went home to his computer and started writing. "I thought it would be interesting to create a story about the people behind this kind of thing."
That story became King of Peking, which is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Set in 1998, it stars Jun Zhao, star of Voutas's earlier film, as Big Wong, a down-at-heel man who begins churning out DVD copies as a means of keeping custody of his young son, Little Wong (Wang Naixun).
It's a wonderfully warm-hearted tale with more than a touch of Cinema Paradiso about it. It even manages to make the pirates seem vaguely heroic in their way.
Voutas speaks about his experiences of being ripped off as he does about everything else, which is to say in the remarkably measured tones of someone raised in China as the son of an Australian diplomat (his mother).
As a result of that childhood, he speaks fluent Chinese, and has so far made his career in China, first with slice-of-life documentaries such as Shanghai Bride – about a down-at-heel newspaper seller in Beijing looking for a wife (is anyone else spotting a pattern here?) – and now with slice-of-life features.
"The trouble with those social documentaries is that you literally have to follow your subjects for years in order to see any substantial change," Voutas says of his shift to fiction. "I just didn't have the patience."
He has been based in LA for five years now – not to try to crack Hollywood, but rather to try to crack China. "If you're not going to be based in Beijing and you want to work in China film, the next best place is LA. It's becoming a satellite hub for Chinese films."
He would like to make movies in English at some point, "but I'd like to keep making Chinese films too. I want to jump around."
Although King of Peking is classed as an Australia-China co-production, he made it entirely outside the terms of the official co-pro treaty between the countries, and with no support from funding agencies at either end. It might be the old diplomat-speak again, but he gives the impression he's not too upset about the fact Screen Australia didn't want to know.
"I understand there needs to be a system where you need to tick a certain number of boxes in order to qualify," he says. "It's probably a matter of me not having done my homework early enough."
He turned instead to crowdfunding, raising $52,000 on Kickstarter and about a third as much on a Chinese platform. That was enough, he says, to prove the concept was viable, and to drum up funding from corporate backers (most of them in China, one in the UK).
The biggest challenge he had in making his second feature was finding locations. "Beijing has changed so much since 1998 that we couldn't shoot there," he says.
He found towns in Hebei province to double for the Beijing he remembered, and an old cinema in a factory in the middle of the countryside. "It wasn't operating any more, but they'd left the projectionist living in this Soviet-style cinema as his home," he says. They even used some of his personal belongings as props.
"We just got lucky," Voutas says. "That's the thing about filmmaking, so much just aligns by accident. There's a sort of happy chaos to it."
King of Peking screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival on Monday. Details: miff.com.au The Age is a festival media partner