King of Chinatown Review

Despite the use of some obscure references, King of Chinatown provides a truly insightful look at the lives of those who play video games professionally.

The fighting game community is a complete mystery even to most of the people who work in the video game industry. King of Chinatown attempts to shed some light on that particular subculture and all those who choose to play games professionally. Unfortunately, those unfamiliar with this niche genre won’t be able to appreciate this documentary as much as those who have actively played fighting titles back in their heyday.

King of Chinatown is a documentary that follows the lives of professional video game player Justin Wong and his manager TriForce. The film deals with the rise of “electronic sports” and the culture surrounding the most popular fighting game at the time of filming: Street Fighter IV. To make a career out of it, players start playing in small arcades and gradually move to bigger tournaments. The largest one is called Evolution Tournament (EVO for short) and is the most important setting of the film.

That is the premise of the film and throughout the documentary, we see Justin trying to become the best Street Fighter IV player in the world. Soon enough though, the explanations of what these players are able to do become extremely technical, so I can see a lot of people scratching their heads in confusion when some obscure references are made. It only gets much more complex from there and soon enough, specific terms (such as the concept of parrying which is vital to understand the extremely popular Justin vs Daigo clip) are constantly brought up, but never clearly explained.

King of Chinatown (Screenshot)

Let’s go Justin!

Despite the use of some obscure definitions, King of Chinatown provides a truly insightful look at the lives of those who play video games professionally and more importantly, it takes an in-depth look at the fighting game community and the subculture surrounding the most popular games in the genre. Not only do you hear players talk about their experiences, but also their close friends, managers and so on and so forth.

What’s also great about the film is that it shows the underground scene surrounding the community. For instance, someone explains that the San Francisco area doesn’t have an arcade that players feel attached to that’s why someone went ahead and made one in his garage. At that place, players gather, chat and practice from time to time. Justin Wong is there, the Capcom Community Manager is there and some of the best players in the area are also there.

Eventually, some of the film’s issues become apparent. At one point in the documentary, some of the players make reference to the Justin vs Daigo famous video from the 2004 EVO finals, but for some unknown reason the clip isn’t shown in its entirety. Therefore, those who has never watched the clip will struggle to understand what the video means to the community. For the uninitiated, this makes reference to the YouTube clip in which Daigo was able to parry Wong’s combo and make the most nail-biting comeback in the history of fighting games.

King of Chinatown (Justin vs Daigo)

Justin Wong vs Daigo Umehara.

To put this in perspective, picture the following situation: Daigo’s Ken was down to his last pixel of vitality. At this point, any successful attack would knock down Daigo, making Justin the indisputable winner of the EVO 2004 semifinals. Since even one blow would deal chip damage to Diago, Justin decides to perform a special attack. Instead of avoiding Chun Li’s Super Art move, Daigo recognizes Justin’s intentions and decides to Parry. Parrying is a technique in which incoming attacks are blocked without the player losing health, but by doing so, the player has to move in the direction of the opponent at the precise moment of each attack (within four or thirty frames per second of the animation, to be more precise.) Not only does Daigo parry fifteen hits in a row, but he also manages to perform a combo of his own after doing so, defeating Justin in the most graceful way possible.

A couple of years after the fight, Justin and Daigo face each other again and the match is presented in the film as an epic encounter. But I can’t see someone actually understanding the importance of that match unless they have heard of the aforementioned Justin vs Daigo video somewhere else or they have read a technical explanation. I think this pretty much sums up the main problem with the documentary: it stumbles when it comes to explaining certain concepts and the amount of skill necessary to do what’s shown on screen. The fact that none of the electrifying matches is shown in its entirety completely removes the tension and thrill of the experience, making the footage feel contrived.

Finally, I found the film’s conclusion quite disappointing. Although I won’t reveal any of the particulars let me just say that it focuses on the business side of the industry. Up until that point, money that was given to players as part of competitions, endorsements or sponsorships was mentioned a couple of times, but dedicating the last minutes of the documentary to it, instead of focusing on the last fights of the EVO tournament, seems odd.

In conclusion, King of Chinatown does a poor job of familiarizing the audience with this niche subculture. While some will find the story of Justin Wong absorbing, those who aren’t intimately familiar with the fighting game community will find it dull, boring and overwhelmingly tedious. Ultimately, it’s hard to recommend King of Chinatown to any other than those who follow the fighting game community closely.