Chinese Hit Comedy 'Lost in Thailand' Generating Mixed Returns for Thai Economy
International Revenue for Chinese Films Fell by Half in 2012 (Report)
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.