A movie on the move
China's hit comedy 'Lost in Thailand' is headed our way
"Tai" in the movie title "Tai Jiong" not only refers to Thailand, where much of the story takes place, but also to "peace of mind", a dictionary-listed definition of the word, explains Xu Zheng, the writer, director and star of "Lost in Thailand". What has attracted 32 million viwers could be the "jiong" part of the title - a new Chinese word that graphically captures an expression of awkwardness and foolishness, tinged with self-mockery.
"It is the opposite of "tai", of which I found plenty while on a trip to Thailand," says Xu. "This is a country where the pace of life is slower than China, and people seem to be more secure and happier." Xu portrays a business executive who has to beat his rival to find the largest shareholder of their company and get his seal of authorisation. That means billions of yuan in future income.
On his journey, he bumps into an idiot savant, who keeps wrecking his plans.
They are the polar opposites in almost everything, which is the departure point for many of the gags in the road comedy. But it was Manfred Wong, a Hong Kong writer-producer, who first paired the two in the 2010 comedy "Lost on Journey".
That film, about the trials and tribulations of Chinese people returning home for Chinese New Year, was inspired by an American flick, the 1987 comedy "Planes, Trains and Automobiles", starring Steve Martin and John Candy.
The former is a high-strung executive and the latter a well-meaning but clumsy salesman. That formula fits the Chinese story like a glove, now packed with China-specific jokes and situations.
In terms of copyright, "Lost in Thailand" is not a sequel to "Lost on Journey". Neither Xu nor Enlight Pictures, which funded and distributed it, holds the rights, so Wang Changtian, CEO of Enlight Media, twisted the brand by changing one Chinese word in the original title to its homonym (roughly translated, "Lost Again on Journey"), followed by the colloquial title "Tai Jiong".
After Xu conceived the project, he started pitching it around town. According to inside sources, he went to Galloping Horse, one of the half dozen major production firms in China, which asked Xu to cut his proposed budget of 25 million yuan (Bt120 million) by half. Xu backed off.
"The pitch was repeated at other studios until he had a 20-minute meeting with Wang of Enlight, during which he acted out detailed scenes - with no script or outline.
"I didn't get around to reading the full script, but I instantly sensed he was serious. He has the temperament, communication skills and maturity to see through in production what he demonstrated to me in that meeting," Wang recalls.
Xu responds that he was lucky Enlight trusted him with the project. "They not only saw the commercial possibilities, but also the texture of the story. That was valuable to me."
Xu enlisted his wife, Tao Hong, an actress who has a cameo in the movie. "After I wrote each draft, she would be my first reader and give me feedback," he says.
The movie showcases many Thai delights, including its myriad temples, elephant rides, resort hotels, and especially the exotic phenomenon of "lady boys", young transgender men who entertain clients for a living.
Tourism experts forecast that Chinese, in the afterglow of this smash hit, will swarm to Thailand for the coming holiday season. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Thai government and tourism agencies did not pay a single penny in product placement or tie-in promotions.
"We were very tight in pre-production. We had to shoot everything before the monsoon season. So, we didn't even think of contacting those agencies for sponsorship. Instead, we turned to personal friends for help," Wang says.
In the process of post-production, Xu made a 3.5-hour rough cut.
He was hesitant whether to show it to the boss, but Wang was encouraging: "We've seen lots of rough cuts, and we can imagine how the final cut will look. And all the good things were in there."
After Xu tightened it to around 100 minutes, "the tempo was perfect and there was nothing you could change to make it better."
Xu got rid of some scenes for fear of boring the audience, but he left a couple of scenes where the madcap action is placed on hold and both the characters and the audience can take a respite and reflect on what has just happened.
"The best comedy will not just make you laugh, but use laughter as a means to achieve joy. Tears often accompany this kind of laughter because there is latent suffering, through which audiences will be taken on a journey of discovery and wonderment, and when leaving the theatre, a sense of gratification. That is real comedy."
Yet some middle-aged or senior moviegoers have not been moved. Wang says he understands: "Even though it is a family film, we did not focus on the more mature demographic, whom we did not expect would see it."
One academic accused the farce of "propagating bad taste" and "having no use for raising national morals."
To which Xu replies: "I just hope that public attention on this movie will bring more opportunities for my colleagues and will not bring bad feelings, such as suspicion or discord."
With the laurel of "China's top-grossing filmmaker", Xu cautions that he may never be able to top himself at the box office. "But I hope my future movies will be better in quality."
FIND IT HERE
- "Lost in Thailand" opens in Thai cinemas on February 7.
- Watch the trailer at Youtu.be/kmXXhrSMoMg