Even with his midas touch, China’s most commercially successful filmmaker Feng Xiaogang couldn’t deliver the bucks with his latest blockbuster Back in 1942 (see WiC174). The disaster film took $60 million in ticket sales, after hopes that it would gross at least $100 million.
Instead, a low-budget comedy titled Lost in Thailand surprised the entire industry by becoming the first local production to break through the Rmb1 billion mark ($160 million) at the box office.
The film overtook last year’s formerly top-grossing homegrown film Painted Skin: The Resurrection, which earned about $112.5 million, says Xinhua. Lost in Thailand also cruised past James Cameron’s Titanic 3D, which had been 2012’s best performer overall at $150 million.
All the more surprising, Lost in Thailand only cost Rmb30 million to make and has no major stars in the cast (although A-list starlet Fan Bingbing does have a brief cameo in the film). Adding to its dark horse status, its prequel – Lost in Journey – grossed just Rmb45 million, leading the pundits to assume it would enjoy a similarly muted reception.
So what is the film about and why did it prove such a hit with local audiences?
Invariably comparisons have been drawn with the American film The Hangover – a relatively low budget comedy that also proved a smash hit at the box office. But while that film was about a Las Vegas bachelor party that went horribly wrong, Lost in Thailand takes a somewhat tack: merging slapstick with a spiritual journey.
Suitably enough the film features two entrepreneurs who are battling to gain control of a new miracle chemical that could revolutionise the global oil industry (and their bank balances). The problem is that the inventor of the chemical is on a retreat at a temple in Thailand. So the two embark on a race to get to him first and hence fly to Bangkok. The film’s main character, Xu Lang – one of the two entrepreneurs – meets Wangbao on his flight. The latter is a humble street vendor from Beijing who makes pancakes. Unlike Xu Lang who wants to make billions from listing his company, Wangbao is unambitious and happy with life (his reason for going to Thailand is very different too – so as to cheer up his sick mother he’s come up with the ruse that he’s just got married and is going on honeymoon. The ailing mother is shown photos of Fan Bingbing – Wangbao’s supposed bride – which explains her cameo appearance towards the film’s end).
These two very different characters end up being thrown together on an accident-prone and amusing journey through Thailand. To the surprise of the cosmopolitan and materially successful businessman Xu Lang he gradually loses his scorn for Wangbao and starts to learn some valuable life lessons from his companion. By the end of the film his quest for wealth has been forgotten, as Xu Lang focuses instead on his family and rediscovering the simple things that will make him happy.
The film’s message may partly explain its wildfire success as it perhaps offers audiences a welcome antidote to the rampant materialism of present day China.
“The comedy won rave reviews by giving Chinese audiences what they want: funny dialogue, good timing and a prompt for self-reflection. It is a breeze to sit through,” Xinhua reported.
Wang Changtian, director of Enlight Media, the studio that produced the film, is modest about the film’s success. “We’ve had a lot of luck. We felt very lucky when the box office takings reached Rmb500 million. Now we feel very, very lucky they’ve reached over Rmb1 billion,” he says. (The stock of the Shenzhen-listed company has surged 68% in the last month thanks entirely to the performance of Lost in Thailand.)
“What really shocks me is the market’s thirst for comedies. It’s a powerful demand. I attended a press conference held at a cinema, and a cleaner told me Lost in Thailand was amazing. Some said they would take their parents to watch the movie again… The film has attracted people who don’t often go to the cinema,” says Xu Zheng, the movie’s director.
Lost in Thailand’s success strengthens the case of those who believe that Chinese moviegoers are growing weary of the overabundance of big-budget historical epics and martial art films that have come to dominate the local production scene. This is a theme WiC first touched on in issue 50.
Instead, Lost in Thailand seems to have tapped into an underlying demand for locally-made comedy. Perhaps this is a genre where Chinese productions can compete more vigorously with imported films, as humour tends to be local and doesn’t always travel between cultures.
“In its own way, Lost in Thailand proves that Chinese audiences care about local films. They want to see Chinese faces in contemporary Chinese situations, films that reflect their own culture, their own sense of humour,” says Robert Cain, author of chinafilmbiz, a film industry blog. “When they go for a local movie, they don’t care about scale, budget or effects. They just want to see stories that they can connect to, stories that reflect their modern day circumstances, stories that are uniquely Chinese.”
The other big winner: Thailand. The country’s beautiful scenery is memorably captured in the film, and this has led local media to speculate that Thai-bound tourism is set to surge. The Xinmin Evening Post, for example, reports that more than 10,000 Chinese booked trips to Thailand last month through MangoCity.com – that’s triple the volume handled by the online travel agent the previous December.
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