Getting lost proves lucrative

Chinese comedy about Hong Kong is breaking records at the box office

Xu Zheng

Xu shares a stage with his co-stars Vicky Zhao and Du Juan

For anyone unfamiliar with the Hollywood comedy The Hangover Part II, it is a near-identical copy of the 2009 original: the same bunch of blokes, another bachelor party, and, of course, memory loss. It largely transplants the original Vegas-based plot to Bangkok.

Lost in Thailand – which was released in 2012 – has been dubbed China’s answer to The Hangover Part II. It was also set in the Land of Smiles, though Chinese comedian Xu Zheng opted to focus more on Thailand’s natural beauty in his directorial debut (rather than the seedier side of Bangkok featured in The Hangover). The result was a surprise hit. The road-trip comedy became the first Chinese movie to gross more than Rmb1 billion ($156 million, see WiC177). It was also credited with boosting Chinese tourist arrivals to Thailand (see WiC192). Former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang even gave it an honourable mention when addressing the Thai parliament in 2013.

After this spectacular success, the sequel was eagerly awaited. And this time the franchise shifted its location to Hong Kong.

Unusually Lost in Hong Kong opened simultaneously in China and the US, hitting screens on September 25. Starring Xu again, as well as starlet Vicki Zhao and fashion model Du Juan, its opening day take topped $32 million at home. That’s the biggest debut ever for a Chinese movie, and the third largest overall behind only Furious 7 and Transformers 4.

Compared with Thailand, where ties with Beijing have long been on good terms, Hong Kong has developed into a more troubled spot for China (it’s almost exactly a year ago that the Occupy Central protests began). We have reported extensively on the fraying of Hong Kong’s relations with its mainland overlord. This has affected tourist arrivals (down), hit sales in shops and led to falling rents for commercial landlords (see Wi295).

In the 1980s – when Hong Kong was known as the Oriental Hollywood – mainlanders were depicted in its movies as bumpkins. No more: China has become the new driving force behind the city’s entertainment industry. But rather than use the movie’s Hong Kong setting to make a satire about anti-mainland sentiment in the city, Xu has taken a different tack, paying tribute to the local film industry.

Some of this may be lost on Western audiences, but the movie is packed with references to Hong Kong movie classics from the 1980s and 1990s, such as Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express. “Lost in Hong Kong looks to be an all-encompassing love letter to Hong Kong filmmaking. It’s chock-full of movie references and in-jokes,” the Los Angeles Times notes.

Many Hong Kong screen legends – again largely unknown to foreigners but familiar faces to Chinese fans who grew up watching Hong Kong movies – make cameo appearances. The soundtrack features a new theme song from top Chinese singer Faye Wong, but likewise contains so many iconic Hong Kong pop tunes that the reviewer from the New York Times appears to have tuned out: “At times it seems like an extended, sappy pop-music video.”

Several mainland Chinese and Hong Kong firms worked together on the project. Travel agency Ctrip, for example, is now offering a Lost in Hong Kong-themed package that involves a tour of the locations featured in the movie. Those Chinese tourists will be arriving in Hong Kong on the airline Cathay Pacific, another sponsor of the movie.

An olive branch like this is overdue, suggests am730, a Hong Kong newspaper: “The movie helps improve mainland Chinese perceptions of Hong Kong, and redirect the mainland-Hong Kong relationship in a feel-good direction.”

Perhaps this explains why Lost in Hong Kong was shown on an unprecedented 100,000 cinema screens across China in its first 24 hours (though, ironically, it is yet to screen in Hong Kong itself). The Southern Metropolis Daily says the comedy is set to break box office records. That would mean surpassing domestic animation film Monster Hunt which had taken Rmb2.4 billion as of September.

Meanwhile, Lost in Hong Kong has also performed respectably in the US, making $558,900 from 27 theatres (including AMC cinemas owned by Chinese conglomerate Wanda since 2013). This is a significant improvement on Lost in Thailand, which took less than $30,000 in its US opening two years ago.

Could the UK be the next target for China’s cinematic soft power? The Telegraph reports this week that Wanda’s boss Wang Jianlin is looking to purchase the country’s iconic Odeon cinema chain too…

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