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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 in 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 Wada 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. Xu travels to Thailand to find his boss, in order to get permission to proceed with the deal.
In one scene, Xu is trapped in Bangkok traffic trying to make a flight. He's a consummate backseat 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."