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Rachel Wang

Why Is a Mediocre, Low-Budget Comedy Taking China’s Box Office by Storm?

“Lost in Thailand” is fast approaching “Avatar’s” Chinese box-office record. (m4tik/Flickr)

This article also appears in ChinaFile, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.

December 2012 saw hot competition in Chinese cinema. It began with Life of Pi, which was directed by Ang Li, an Oscar-winning director, followed by 1942, a historical movie by director Feng Xiaogang and The Last Supper by up-and-coming director Lu Chuan. The film market seemed packed with big names, big investments and big themes. The comedy Lost in Thailand (人再囧途之泰囧), with a freshman director in Xu Zheng and a paltry 30 million RMB budget (about US$4.8 million), was never supposed to have a chance.

Instead, dark horse Lost in Thailand galloped past its competition. By raking in 1.1 billion RMB (about US$180 million) since its January 3 debut, Lost in Thailand not only set a box office record for a Chinese-language movie, but looks on track to best current Chinese box office–champ Avatar, which took in 1.38 billion RMB on the Chinese market.

Readers who have not seen Lost in Thailand would be forgiven for assuming the film is packed with smart jokes. It is not. Its plot is surprisingly simple: Two businessmen fight over a deal as they travel through Thailand in search of their boss. The film does include some interesting Chinese Internet slang, but is otherwise unremarkable, especially given it is a sequel to the 2010 film Lost on Journey, which grossed only 46.5 million RMB.

They love us online

But users of Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform, have shown their love for Lost in Thailand en masse. A search for the movie’s title on Weibo calls up over 8.1 million recent posts. @G女神 wrote, “Watched Lost in Thailand tonight, so great for someone who has a low ‘laughing point’ like me. Laughed to death, recommend that everyone go and laugh; their little worries would vanish then.” @吴小蟹要幸福 wrote, “Watched Lost in Thailand: Couldn’t resist laughing out loud twice. In fact, this simple mindless happy movie is great, exactly what people under pressure need.”

Lost in Thailand’s success is so widespread that the movie has become a cultural phenomenon, prompting some Weibo users to offer explanations. @张颐武, a Chinese culture professor at Beijing University, commented: “The success of Lost in Thailand is no accident, it has a complete story and understands the mentalities of both middle-class ‘gao fu shuai’ [good-looking, well-to-do Chinese] and middle-class-to-be ‘diaosi’ [underprivileged losers] who were born in the ’80s and ’90s. Xu Zheng and Wang Baoqiang [the two starring actors] are two faces of one unit. Xu represents the weakness of the struggling middle class, while Wang represents the strength of guileless underprivileged losers. The film shows a mixture of love and hates toward ambition and simplicity, [showing] a conflicted attitude. …. The appearance of [Chinese sex icon] Fan Bingbing is the real-life interpretation of the Chinese dream.”

@点子正, a Weibo commentator with more than 10,000 followers, opined: “First, [producers] should thank Feng Xiaogang; The promotion of 1942 [a historical movie focused on the 1942 Chinese famine] set a heavy and painful tone so now everyone wants to have fun. Second, [they] should thank Weibo: word-of-mouth promotion has a huge influence. Third, [they] should thank the grassroots public; everyone loves seeing other’s embarrassments.”

Though Lost in Thailand has received a great deal of attention and its arrival has been welcomed, even people who laud the movie agree: It is an average film, undeserving of the fantastic box office success it has found. The film’s popularity seems even to have spooked the director. According to an interview with Xu Zheng in The Economic Observer: “I just made a simple movie, a normal one, and I was just looking for a normal result, but obviously Lost in Thailand is not normal.”

Secrets to success

One factor pushing Lost in Thailand to the peak might actually be “public revenge” over the so-call “Chinese Hollywood.” A post on the Tianya discussion forum hit the nail on the head: “The Lost in Thailand audience is actually not watching the movie, but slapping down some directors … Slap, you fake deep movies! Slap, you fake 3D blockbuster! Slap, you stupid big-budget movies! Slap, you ugly movies with tons of gimmicks!”

There is a basis to these complaints. In recent years, the Chinese film market has seen more fancy special effects, advanced filmographic techniques, and attempts to tackle serious issues. But the results have seldom been pretty. In contrast, Lost in Thailand never tries to be educational. It uses simple down-to-earth humor, a close understanding of its grassroots audience, and a predictable plot. This has satisfied an audience long discouraged by what they feel is a largely disingenuous slate of Chinese films.

Audiences are not just jaded by disappointing directors. As The Economic Observer (@经济观察报), well, observed: “The entire Chinese economic environment looks gloomy in 2012, and audiences were willing to go to theaters to take out their dissatisfaction. But the movie market simply offered extremely homogenized movies: A pile of martial-arts and spy movies hit the screen … with comedies seldom seen. When Lost in Thailand came out, a pent-up demand was released.”

The overwhelming popularity of Lost in Thailand might thus be more a reminder of what the Chinese film market is missing than an affirmation of the quality of the comedy itself. As Wang Changtian (@王长田), head of Enlight Media Group, the investor behind Lost in Thailand, wrote: “Please don’t over-read Lost in Thailand’s [success]; it won’t change anything, at most it gives [us] something to think about.” Providing a genuine way for Chinese moviegoers to forget their “little troubles” and enjoy a brief escape from reality might be a good place to start.

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Rachel Wang

Rachel Wang is currently based in Beijing working in media. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Economics, and enjoys reading analyses regarding international affairs, Tim Harford and books about china (that's with a lower-case "c").
  • Guest

    In my experience, the wit and humor of Chinese netizens never translates onto other forms of media such as television and film. Of the hundreds of Chinese films I’ve seen, the comedy is always slapstick and extremely stupid

    • andao

      HK movies are pretty funny. I don’t know if you’re counting that as Chinese also. Maybe my sense of humor isn’t very sophisticated.

      I think the main reason it did well is because it’s different. There’s no killing Japanese, or drama among the emperor’s concubines. What a novel idea, make a different movie and people will want to see it. Like the guy above said, it’s about pent up demand for something different.

  • Gonzo

    China’s finally catching up with the US in liking mediocre comedies! Someone call Adam Sandler!

  • Economic Observer

    There’s now an English version of the Economic Observer article you link to in the article – Lost in Thailand’s Box Office Bonanza http://www.eeo.com.cn/ens/2013/0111/238543.shtml