There must have been something in the water when Tribeca programmers decided King of Peking and Mr. Long were the East Asian films most likely to please audiences at this April’s festival. Both are about criminals—one an inept low-level crook, the other a ruthless contract killer—tasked with doing right by the tykes in their charge.
Directed by Beijing-raised Aussie Sam Voutas, King of Peking is almost like a Chinese Cinema Paradiso (1988) that nostalgically recounts the story of a roving film projectionist, Big Wong (Zhao Jun), who in the summer of 1998 enlists his son, Little Wong (Wang Naixun), to help him launch a DVD piracy business.
Mr. Long, the latest from the Japanese filmmaker Sabu, is about a Taiwanese assassin (Chang Chen) who comes to grief trying to eliminate a preening yakuza princeling. He redeems himself not only as a surrogate father to a junkie ex-prostitute’s son (another resourceful small boy), but also as a noodle chef.
These aren’t art-house films, but mainstream comedies with dark edges. Women-less men approaching middle age, Big Wong and Mr. Long are forced by personal upheavals to improvise professionally. King of Peking is set in 1998, but neither the schlubby, movie-mad Mr. Wong nor the lethal Mr. Long are very different from ordinary men struggling to survive in the global economy.
After Mr. Wong’s vintage Moscow-made projector catches fire, he resentfully takes a janitor’s job at a big Beijing movie theater run by a petty tyrant. Acquiring the prototype of a DVD player that had been manufactured in a now derelict Japanese factory, he realizes he can make a living by surreptitiously recording the films shown at his workplace and hawking DVDs on the black market.
The funniest sequence shows Mr. Wong smuggling 35mm film from the projection booth by spooling it round his body, then walking stiffly past his boss. When no one’s watching, father and son thread the celluloid through windows and doorways and across the auditorium to their quarters. It’s Little Wong, inevitably, who discovers a simpler way of copying the films.
Pirating movies is a dirty business, but Voutas doesn’t bother to condemn it. Big Wong’s crime is working Little Wong like a sweat-shop employee. He does the boy’s school homework so Little Wong can keep churning out the discs, and he keeps the boy from his mom. The crisis comes when he betrays his promise to build Little Wong a model volcano.
Zhao Jun, who played the sex toy vendor in Voutas’s Red Light Revolution (2010), makes Big Wong sulky, aggressive, and selfish. That he’s a hopeless dad doesn’t diminish his and Little Wong’s love for each other—a coda has the grown son recalling in voice-over what “that summer” meant to him. Elegies are seldom as much ramshackle fun as King of Peking.
Mr. Long begins like a Quentin Tarantino movie. A montage of Kaohsiung neon-scapes introduces a crew of gangsters sneering about an absentee member. Their nasty talk stops when he turns up with the bloody tip of a knife poking out of his chest. Long then appears and decimates the rest of the hoods.
As inscrutable as Clint Eastwood’s Yojimbo-derived Man With No Name persona, Long works as a hitman not because he’s evil, but because it’s a job he performs efficiently. Yet his killings have saddled him with existential gloom; they may be the reason why he hardly ever speaks. Chang Chen is riveting as the brooding loner.
On assignment in Tokyo, Long suffers a rare failure to kill his quarry when his dagger snaps in a strip club. Yakuzas destroy his passport, kick him like a dog, and take him to a remote area for execution. He escapes miraculously when the thugs are distracted by a frantic young man, Kenji (Shô Aoyagi), who demands the return of his girlfriend from the yakuza boss.
Kenji is sprayed with bullets and Long takes one, too. He wakes next morning in a derelict neighborhood. It’s there that adorable little Jun (Run-yin Bai), a boy in need of a dad, pays him a series of lightning visits, dropping off meds, clothes, and veggies.
Mr. Long implies its never too late to become a family man and a local hero. As Long recuperates, he cooks delicious soups in the kitchen of an abandoned house and draws the attention of the few middle-class folks still living in the ‘hood. He takes Jun under his wing and administers cold turkey to Jun’s heroin-addicted mom Lily (Yi Ti Yao). A flashback reveals her former life as a hooker who fell in love with Kenji, a yakuza chauffeur, and conceived Jun with him.
With a week to go before he can get a new passport, Long occupies his time making noodle dishes and selling them from a cart, an endeavor financed by the neighbors. Adored by the women and admired by the men, the laconic, unsmiling stranger is as cool as a street vendor as he was as an angel of death. He, Lily, and Jun are turning into a family when her pusher shows up.
There’s a pleasure to be had in not knowing what kind of movie you’re watching and in remaining receptive to alarming switches in tone. The trick Sabu pulls off is flipping Mr. Long from a Takashi Miike-like thriller to a Tampopo-like comedy and then back again: it’s a seamless, stylish, protean genre mash-up full of surprises.
Apprentice dads especially should check it out. They should look askance at King of Peking‘s Mr. Wong, though I’d argue there’s nothing wrong in schooling your kids in the history of the movies.