After sweeping its booming home box office to become the highest grossing domestic film of all time, Chinese road comedy Lost in Thailand opened in the country where its story is set on Friday – Thailand – and the response among local moviegoers has been a collective shrug.
As of Monday morning, Lost in Thailand reached an estimated 2.5 million baht ($83,000) at the Thai box office, according to its local distributor DNA. “That’s slightly below our projection, but not too bad,” a spokesperson for the company told The Hollywood Reporter.
Nonetheless, there’s ample evidence to suggest that the movie is going to be a boon to the Thai economy – perhaps having an impact far more significant than a single strong box office performance in the country could ever achieve.
Filmed mostly around the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, the film follows the odd-couple pairing of a competitive Chinese businessman and a stereotypically unworldly, and lowerclass, Chinese tourist, who find themselves stuck together on a misbegotten adventure across the so-called 'Land of Smiles.' Reportedly produced for less than $5 million, the film pulled in excess of $215 million in China during its seven-week run. Most analysts have attributed the movie’s success to the way it offers a knowing reflection of the anxieties and ambitions of middleclass Chinese society – a simple formula, but one all-too-rarely delivered by the Hollywood franchise films and domestic historical epics that tend to dominate screen time at Chinese cinemas.
In the western press, Lost in Thailand has frequently been likened to The Hangover II, a film that offended many Thais when it was released in 2011, because of its portrayal of the country as the world’s capital of vice – and for a fight scene in a Buddhist monastery. Some Thai social media users at the time launched small campaigns calling for the movie to be banned; and a Thai reviewer for the country’s leading English newspaper, The Bangkok Post, called The Hangover II, "vulgar and stupid, cinematically, geographically and culturally.”
But contrary to the Hangover comparisons, the tone of Lost in Thailand is decidedly sentimental and family-friendly. The two movies share little else other than a buddy vibe and a setting. The movie’s simpleton character (perhaps very vaguely Galifianakis-esque), Wang Bao has his heart set on seeing a Thai transgendered person, or ladyboy, during his trip, and there are a few nods to Thai prostitution. But they are thoroughgoingly PG episodes, and tame in comparison to the way ladyboys are often portrayed on Thai television and local pop culture, where they occupy an ambiguous place of playful raciness and near-national pride.
For the most part, Lost in Thailand's takeaway portrayal of Thailand is that of a charming country of remarkable natural beauty – a place that every Chinese tourist would enjoy.
Recent projections from Thai tourist organizations suggest Chinese travelers have already taken the bait, and are generating the kind of direct impact on the country's economy that government film offices usually can only dream about when they grant tax incentives to foreign productions.
A recent study from KResearch, the economic analysis arm of Kasikorn Bank, projected that 800,000 Chinese tourists will visit Thailand in the first quarter of 2013, a year-on-year increase of 37.9 percent. Explicitly citing the increased appeal of travel to Thailand following the widespread exposure provided by the film, they estimate that Chinese travelers will generate as much as 29.6 billion of Thai baht, a 44.4 percent year-on-year increase for travel-related business in Thailand.
Like many territories around the world, Thailand aggressively courts foreign productions to shoot on its soil – to generate the direct spending and local employment that follows from film and TV shoots, but also to attain the harder-to-measure PR benefits that might follow from its exotic locations and culture being displayed in foreign media and cinemas.
Tourism generally accounts for more than 6 percent of Thailand’s GDP – the largest slice of any nation in Asia. In 2012, a record 22 million foreign visitors entered the country.
The Thai government issues quarterly estimates of the revenue generated by foreign film shoots in the country -- the Thailand Film Office has projected that 2.2 trillion baht (about $71 million) will be created by foreign productions filmed in Thailand in 2012, surpassing the 2008 record of 2 trillion baht – but the more impressionistic benefits of shooting in-country on foreign audiences and travelers has traditionally been harder to track. The scale of Lost in Thailand’s success in the world’s most populous country though, makes a direct influence hard to deny.
"We're already seeing a lot more interest in Thailand, and more group tours are being planned," Lei Han, a tour guide leader for Chinese travel company Liaoning Merchants International Travel Service based in the northern city of Shenyang told THR. "Traveling to Thailand is going to be hot for at least a year because of this movie."
In an interview with the Bangkok Post, Sarawut Saetiao, president of the Chiang Mai Tourism Business Association said the number of Chinese tourists visiting the area had recently swelled, with the region’s estimated 40,000 hotel rooms averaging 80 to 90 percent occupancy.
In November of 2012, the Thailand Film Office, a government body tasked with boosting foreign shooting in the country, hosted an “Inbound Roadshow Familiarization Tour,” which took location managers from Marvel, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Disney -- along with Norweigen, Irish, Japanese and Korean location scouts – on an expenses-paid trip across the country, showing off its settings and production facilities, in the hopes of securing future foreign location shoots.
No Chinese location managers took part in that first promotional trip. One assumes they'll be onboard next time.