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Move Over James Bond, China Has An Unlikely Box Office Champ

Feb 7, 2013
Originally published on February 8, 2013 9:32 am

Movies are big business in China, and 2012 was another record year: Theaters raked in about $2.7 billion, pushing China past Japan to become the world's second-largest market.

Those blistering sales were expected; China's ultimate box-office champ, however, was not.

Hollywood blockbusters usually do well in China. And last year, competition was stiff, including a new installment of Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible franchise, as well as Skyfall, the latest James Bond flick.

But neither of these heavyweights topped the box office. That achievement goes to Lost in Thailand, a scrappy, Chinese slapstick that cost less than $5 million to make. A cross between The Out of Towners and The Hangover Part II, the road comedy took in more than $200 million in China in seven weeks.

That's the biggest gross for a Chinese movie ever — and more than any foreign film has ever earned in China, except Avatar.

It opens Friday at a very limited number of AMC theaters in America, just in time for Chinese New Year. Chinese conglomerate Wanda bought the theater chain last year for more than $2 billion.

"[The movie is] a phenomenon. I think it surprised a lot of people," says Rance Pow, who runs Artisan Gateway, a cinema investment and research firm in Shanghai.

He says Lost in Thailand took off for several reasons, including timing.

"We'd just come off a number of big Chinese films that were really dramas," he explains.

Pow says ordinary Chinese also gravitated to Lost in Thailand because the humor revolves around the pressures of modern Chinese life. The main character, Xu Long, is headed for divorce and is in vicious competition with his officemate to secure the rights to a world-beating scientific invention in Thailand.

In one scene, Xu is trapped in Bangkok traffic trying to make a flight. He's a consummate back-seat driver, bossing the cabbie around and telling him to hurry up. The Thai cabbie complains that Chinese are always rushing.

"You see in the characters' behaviors towards each other a bit of daily life, a bit of the chaotic, the frenetic activity, the commercial atmosphere, where everyone is go, go, go," Pow says.

The movie also sends up contemporary Chinese stereotypes. Xu inadvertently teams up with Baobao, who is part of a big Chinese tour group that wears matching baseball caps. Sweet-natured and bumbling, Baobao reads Xu a list of his goals for his first trip overseas: seeing the Taj Mahal — which Baobao is saddened to learn is in India — taking on a Thai kickboxer, and watching one of Thailand's famous transvestite shows.

Lost in Thailand has its critics. A professor in the central Chinese city of Wuhan called it "vulgar, debased and commercial."

But Yin Hong, a professor at Bejing's Tsinghua University who follows the film business, says young people seek out this sort of movie to escape some of the same pressures that plague its characters.

"School tests and a busy schedule after landing a job have suppressed the space for young people to have fun," Yin says. "They have a strong desire for entertainment that's not easy to satisfy."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. 2012 was a record year for the movie business in China. Theaters raked in about $2.7 billion. That pushes China past Japan to become the world's second-largest movie market. Those blistering sales were expected. China's ultimate box office champ, however, was not expected. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Shanghai on the hottest film in the world's hottest market.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hollywood blockbusters usually do well here. And last year, competition was stiff. See if you can figure out who came out on top. If you guessed this...

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "MISSION IMPOSSIBLE" THEME)

LANGFITT: Or this...

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "SKYFALL" THEME)

LANGFITT: You would be mistaken. Tom Cruise and James Bond were all beat by this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "LOST IN THAILAND")

LANGFITT: That's "Lost in Thailand," a Chinese slapstick comedy that cost less than $5 million to make. A cross between "The Out of Towners" and "The Hangover II," the movie took in more than $200 million here in just seven weeks. That's the biggest gross for a Chinese movie ever and more than any foreign film has ever earned here except "Avatar."

RANCE POW: It's really a phenomenon. I think it surprised a lot of people.

LANGFITT: Rance Pow runs Artisan Gateway, a cinema investment and research firm in Shanghai. He says "Lost in Thailand" took off for several reasons.

POW: I think the timing was very good for the film. We'd just come off, you know, a number of big Chinese films that were really dramas.

LANGFITT: Pow says ordinary Chinese also gravitated to "Lost in Thailand" because the humor revolves around the pressures of modern Chinese life. The main character, Xu Long, is headed for divorce and in a vicious competition with his officemate to lockdown the rights to a world-beating invention in Thailand. Here he is, trapped in Bangkok traffic trying to make a flight.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "LOST IN THAILAND")

XU ZHENG: (As Xu Long) Go that way. Be quick - no, no, no.

LANGFITT: The Thai cabbie complains Chinese are always rushing. When he learns where Xu is from...

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "LOST IN THAILAND")

ZHENG: (As Xu Long) Beijing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Beijing? (Speaking foreign language)

LANGFITT: He says traffic in Beijing is even worse. Again, Rance Pow.

POW: You see in the characters' behaviors towards one another, a bit of daily life, a bit of the chaotic, the frenetic activity, the commercial atmosphere, where everyone is go, go, go.

LANGFITT: The movie also sends up contemporary Chinese stereotypes. Xu inadvertently teams up with Baobao, who is part of a big Chinese tour group that wears matching baseball caps. Sweet-natured and bumbling, Baobao reads Xu a list of his goals for his first trip overseas.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "LOST IN THAILAND")

WANG BAO: (As Baobao) (Speaking foreign language)

LANGFITT: It includes the Taj Mahal, which Baobao is saddened to learn is in India, taking on a Thai kickboxer, and watching one of Thailand's famous transvestite shows. "Lost in Thailand" has its critics. A professor in the central Chinese city of Wuhan called it, quote, "vulgar, debased and commercial." But Yin Hong, a professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University who follows the film business, says young people seek out this sort of movie to escape some of the same pressures that plague its characters.

YIN HONG: (Through translator) Because school tests and a busy schedule after landing a job have suppressed the space for young people to have fun, they have a strong desire for entertainment that's not easy to satisfy.

LANGFITT: "Lost in Thailand" opens in a very limited run at select AMC Theaters in the U.S. tomorrow, just in time for Chinese New Year. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.