Lost in Thailand: How a Lowbrow, Low-Budget Film Became China’s Biggest Hit

The plot feels like a rehash of "The Hangover Part II" and "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," but why is the film such a hit?

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People walk past a poster of the movie "Lost in Thailand" in Nantong city, China, Dec. 16, 2012

Lost in Thailand is by any measure a ridiculous movie. Two Chinese colleagues race to find their boss at a remote monastery in Thailand, battling bad traffic, gangsters, a snake, a kickboxer and, most important, each other, all in an effort to win the rights to an improbable invention: Super Gas, a liquid that turns a little bit of gasoline into a lot. Somehow it is doing ridiculously well. With a budget of less than $6 million, the film has earned $193 million since it opened Dec. 12, making it China’s most profitable film and pulling in more viewers than foreign hits such as Avatar and the third Transformers, according to a report in the Caixin business journal.

While those films relied on big-budget special effects, the action scenes in Lost in Thailand look like something out of a Leslie Nielsen film. The plot feels like a rehash of The Hangover Part II and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Without a terribly original script or eye-catching pyrotechnics, what has made Lost in Thailand such a hit? It’s a question that the rest of the film industry badly wants to answer.

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Part of the explanation is timing. The New Year’s period is when China sees its biggest blockbusters rolled out to coincide with holidays on Jan. 1 and the all-important Chinese New Year a few weeks later. Director Feng Xiaogang has been synonymous with the hesuipian, or New Year’s celebration film, offering lighthearted comedic fare like If You Are the One for family viewing over the holidays. But some of Feng’s recent works have been deadly serious. In 2010 he released Aftershock, about a pair of deadly earthquakes, and in December he released 1942, a film about wartime famine in central China. The other big release of this season, director Lu Chuan’s The Last Supper, about a power-mad Han-dynasty Emperor, is only slightly less grim. Lost in Thailand is a natural alternative for audiences looking for something a little happier, then. “This year’s hesuipian like 1942 and The Last Supper are full of serious historical topics, and the repressed atmosphere leaves visitors feeling gloomy,” said the China Culture Daily, a state-run newspaper. “In a flash, the humor of Lost in Thailand makes viewers feel happy.”

Another popular theory among reviewers, social-media commenters and Chinese friends who have seen the film is that it cleaves to the experiences of average Chinese in a way that few films do successfully. The film is a successor to Lost on Journey, a send up of the tribulations that Chinese face each year when they travel home for the Chinese New Year. Lost in Thailand takes the same formula and transfers it abroad to one of Chinese tourists’ favorite destinations. Xu Lang, played by the film’s director, Xu Zheng, is a savvy scientist transfixed on bringing his invention to market. He is racing his former friend and rival Gao Bo, played by Huang Bo, to find their boss at a rural Thai monastery to win approval of their respective development plans. On the flight, Xu meets Wang Bao, a simpleminded pancake maker from Beijing, clad in full tourist regalia, including the red hat from his tour group, and carrying a long list of goals for his voyage, including, of course, seeing Thai transvestites, or “ladyboys.” Wang, played by Wang Baoqiang, is something of a Chinese everyman, silly and easily mocked, wanting to photograph himself flashing a peace sign in front of everything, including the hotel chairs. But the obtuse pancake flipper has an honest heart and ultimately proves wiser than Xu or the comic villain Gao.

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Not everyone loves the film. Xiao Su, an author and professor at the Central China Normal University School of Chinese Language and Literature in Wuhan, said at a meeting of the city’s legislature that Lost in Thailand was “vulgar, debased and commercial.” He added that Chinese films “should not just be focused on ticket sales but should emphasize a cultural orientation and pay attention to lifting ordinary people’s cultural qualities and tastes.” An op-ed in the 21 Century Economic Report, a Guangzhou-based newspaper, called the criticism elitist and said it denied average people their right to the pleasures of a lighthearted movie. “When a few intellectuals who think they are the elite and filled with an enormous sense of superiority criticize [Lost in Thailand], people can’t help but think of experts in the past who said that peasants lacked the necessary qualities for a modern democracy,” wrote Zhu Naijuan, an editor for the newspaper.

The film has been largely well received in Thailand, which has cringed at the portrayal of over-the-top Bangkok nightlife in films like The Hangover Part II. But because of Chinese censorship, Lost in Thailand couldn’t get that crazy even if the filmmakers wanted to. So ladyboys are the subject of just one joke that cracks more fun at the wild imaginations of the Chinese characters than at Thai transvestites. A Bangkok Post columnist wrote that while it was easy to assume Lost in Thailand was “a mindless, lowbrow slapstick comedy with calamity, insensitive jokes against other people (and sometimes other countries),” it turned out “the movie is comparatively culturally sensitive.” A lesson, perhaps, for Hollywood.

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