Sam Voutas: An Australian in China

May 22, 2017
Premiering his latest Chinese film, King of Peking, at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, we spoke with Australian ex-pat Sam Voutas.

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 Aussie writer-director Sam Voutas’s King of Peking, a Chinese-language film that had its world premiere in April at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

From IndieWire: “After learning that his ex-wife is demanding spousal support, fearing he might lose custody of Little Wong, Big Wong picks up a second job as a janitor at a movie theater in Bejing. Barely making ends meet, Big Wong comes up with an alternative plan to sell bootleg versions of films from the basement of the theater under the business title King of Peking. Although his business may be lucrative, Big Wong begins to notice the distrust Little Wong has developed towards his father’s business venture.”

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?

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 King of Peking is on the festival circuit I hope we can take it back there.

What is your China connection?

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 eighteen years.

Are you known in China, in the film community?

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.

You don’t act in King of Peking.

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.

Were you inspired to make King of Peking by your childhood in China?

The college where my father worked was located in a rural area about an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Beijing and on weekends about once a month, a traveling projectionist would come to town. I got to experience that first hand in the early nineties. I was about twelve 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.

Was it the same projectionist every time that people waited for, as it is with the lead character in your movie?

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.

Could you understand Chinese?

I was learning the language and could pretty much understand the dubbed films. I speak Chinese now.

When watching your film, I was thinking of a great scene in Preston Sturges’s Sullivan Travels [1942] 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.

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.

Where did you get the idea of a projectionist teaming with his young son in the film piracy business?

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.

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.

He’s a traveling showman, really. He harks back to what there was in the West, travelling 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 mould of what he used to do in a traditional sense by going from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and starts bringing entertainment to people the city.

I could tell that you, like Big Wong, are a real film buff, because you have him mention John Ford and Akira Kurosawa.

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.

It is important, I think, that this is the education that he’s giving Little Wong. This is what he’s capable of teaching his son.

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.

The Wongs live in the basement of a theater, which they get to through a trap door on the stage.  Was that your concept?

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 hanging them up to dry in front of the screen. That was really interesting!

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?

Yes, but that doesn’t just happen 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.

Big Wong’s ex-wife isn’t by no means perfect and I was thinking their son is better off with his father. Do you want that reaction?

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 realisation 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.

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?

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?”

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