Low-Budget Slapstick Tops Hollywood Hits in China

A low-budget Chinese slapstick road comedy topped Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters to capture the top spot in China’s box office in 2012.

Lost in Thailand was made for under $5 million but took in over $200 million in China in just seven weeks to become the nation’s second-biggest-grossing film ever — behind only Avatar.

Lost topped both of Hollywood’s big new offerings for the year — the lastest Mission Impossible installment as well as the new James Bond flick Skyfall.

The box office success of a homegrown film brings a ray of hope to China’s film industry at a time when the nation just surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-biggest box-office market with a $2.7 billion gross last year. That’s still a relatively paltry sum compared to the $10.8 billion US box office, but the growth rate in China was 30% while the US figure was a mere 2% higher than the gross in 2009.

China’s box office is projected to grow at the annual rate of about 17% through 2020, at which time it will pass the US to become the world’s top movie market.

China’s film industry has been gearing up to claim its share of domestic box office. Until recently its main ally was a stringent film import quota system that kept down the number of foreign products that could be shown in China’s theaters. Until last year the number of Hollywood blockbusters that could be imported was a modest 20 per year. In 2012 that was raised to 34 and their share of Chinese box office was allowed to rise from 17.5% to 25%.

The 38 overseas films shown in China’s theaters during the first half of 2012, including 14 Hollywood products, captured two-thirds of total ticket sales. But China is making a government-funded push to become a bigger soft-power nation. In 2012 China’s filmmakers produced 745 feature films and 33 animated films, according to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). That makes China the world’s third-biggest film producer. Still by the end of the year foreign films had captured 8.8 billion yuan ($1.4 bil.) or 51.54% of gross box office.

It was the first time that foreign films had been allowed to earn more than domestic films since 2002. In 2003, under international pressure to open its film market wider, China initiated efforts to boost its domestic film industry. Those efforts have gained steam recently with various production partnerships with Hollywood studios as well as the $2-bil. purchase of the AMC theater chain by China’s Wanda Group.

Thanks to that acquisition Lost in Thailand will have a chance to amuse US audiences at selected AMC theaters in North America. The film appeals to Chinese because it manages to capture entertainingly the hectic pace of modern Chinese life amid the chaos wrought by the disintegration of traditional cultural anchors.

It follows Xu Long, whose marriage is falling apart, as he and a colleague pursue the rights to a potentially lucrative invention in Bangkok. He is thrown together with a buffoon who has come to Thailand with the goal of seeing the Taj Mahal, fighting a Thai kickboxer and taking in a transvestite show.

Lost’s popularity at the box office has made the film important enough to incur the snubs of China’s cultural guardians who have labeled it “vulgar, debased and commercial”. That is probably the biggest compliment that can be paid to a domestic film at a time when the industry’s primary object seems to have shifted from glorifying Chinese culture to defending domestic box office from Hollywood and Korean imports.