“What is the charge? Eating a meal? A succulent Chinese meal?” You know how it goes. The arrest of Jack Karlson in front of the China Sea Restaurant in Fortitude Valley in 1991 is legendary. The 33-year-old incident was immortalised into a Youtube video, uploaded in 2009, and countless memes, and next year it’ll be dissected in an indie documentary, The Man Who Ate a Succulent Chinese Meal.

Director Heath Davis (the filmmaker behind 2023’s Christmess 2019’s Broke) and producer Tim Randall tell Broadsheet they’re about halfway through production, but uncovering the man behind the meme – “Mr Democracy Manifest” – comes with its challenges. “He has prostate cancer and it’s quite aggressive,” Davis tells Broadsheet. “So we don’t know how long we have left with him.”

The grey-haired, moustached man who gave us quotes such as “Get your hand off my penis” and “I see you know your judo well” is Jack Karlson, or at least that’s the name we’ll use here. “When you’re making a story on a man like Jack Karlson, a criminal con man, each filming day opens up a new window, a new discovery and then you’re like ‘Wow, I need to know more about that’,” says Davis.

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“His name isn’t even Jack Karlson, everyone just knows him as Jack Karlson. We tried to do a contract with him and it was really difficult because it requires his real name.”

Karlson, who has admitted to busting out of prison more than once, has said he’s used around 10 aliases in his criminal career. He says the arrest that made him famous was a case of mistaken identity. Some say it was performance art. “That’s part of the charm of Jack Karlson. It’s not an act. We are discovering that ourselves, but he is a criminal first and foremost. We have to do our best to try and decipher fact from fiction.”

The film is due to be released in March 2025, and though the documentary will tackle the popularity of the meme, it’ll also include interviews with all the people Karlson interacted with, including arresting officer Stoll Watt who appeared on ABC Breakfast alongside Karlson to launch the film.

“It is engaging, compelling, and all the characters in his orbit bring a whole other element to the story, so there will be an element of the audience deciphering and making their own judgement when they watch the film,” says Davis. “And if we find out he did embellish things or he wasn’t telling us things, discovering that is part of the charm.”

Davis says Karlson’s backstory – which includes time spent imprisoned at Brisbane’s Boggo Road (which he escaped in 1966, according to the ABC), Sydney’s Long Bay and Melbourne’s Pentridge – is extraordinary. “What’s really interesting is, in a way, his whole life was building up to that moment. Everything that’s happened to him, which you’d never believe half of what has happened to Jack Karlson – the trauma, the obstacles – are all building up to that moment in time.”

So why hasn’t his story already been told? “Jack really is the last Australian larrikin,” says the director. “Some sources actually don’t want to talk to us at the moment. But when Jack passes they will. Whether these people are telling me the truth or not, I don’t know. They’re still criminals. Even Jack at 82 … they don’t want to incriminate [anyone].

“It takes years [to make a film] and you have to commit to it,” adds Davis. “And the other answer is: I don’t know. I couldn’t believe it either.”

The filmmakers have access to some of Karlson’s home videos from the 1990s, and, unsurprisingly, he was partial to a Chinese meal. “He used to love Chinese … He would videotape everything, especially the women in his life. He would go to the Golden Century in Chinatown so he was a big fan of the Chinese restaurant.”

The Man Who Ate a Succulent Chinese Meal is being made by Kicking Television Productions. It’s set for release in March 2025.