A very Chinese take on Planes, Trains & Automobiles, 2010's Lost on Journey was a surprise hit at the domestic box office thanks to a solid script (co-written by Hong Kong's Manfred Wong) as well as great screen chemistry between stars Xu Zheng and Wang Baoqiang as two travelers trying to make a 3000-km journey across China. Many expected that Lost in Thailand ¨ Ė only a thematic continuation of Lost on Journey Ė would be a modest hit thanks to its stars and the popularity of the first film. However, Lost in Thailand didnít just shatter expectation, it crunched them into atoms by becoming the highest-grossing domestic film ever at the Chinese box office.
Does Lost in Thailand deserve such success? On one hand, any expectation that the film is a radical game changer should be put aside, as itís a typical road comedy that never attempts to subvert the genre (it's nothing like the The Hangover films, despite the way some trades label it). On the other hand, Xu Zheng's directorial debut is a surprisingly well-oiled commercial machine that delivers everything audiences would expect from such a film. In other words, don't expect Let the Bullets Fly.
Like Lost on Journey, Lost in Thailand is essentially a road movie about two people trying to get from point A to point B. Xu Leng (Xu Zheng) is a scientist who has developed the Supergas Petroleum Enhancer, a concoction that can expand gas by 50%. To develop and sell the enhancer, he needs a letter of attorney signed by his company majority shareholder Zhou, who is on a meditation trip in Thailand. On the flight, he meets hyper simpleton Wang Bao (Wang Baoqiang), an onion cake maker on his first trip abroad.
However, finding Zhou is not Xu Leng's only worry. Close on his tail is Gao Bo (Huang Bo), a company rival who wants to sell the Supergas technology to the French for a quick payday. To shake Gao Bo off his tail, Leng leaves his bugged cell phone in Wang Bao's bag. Being the kind simpleton that he is, Wang Bao tries to return the phone to Xu Leng and ends up joining the journey in the heat of the chase. Realizing that he needs Wang Bao's passport to travel, Leng now has to make sure he beats Gao Bo to Zhou and that Wang Bao won't get them killed on the way there.
In addition to being a road trip buddy comedy, Xu and co-writers Shu Han and Ding Ding add a refreshing chase element in the form of Gao Bo. The character not only replaces the extraneous dramatic digressions of Lost in Journey with more comedy (including an obligatory car chase), he provides a much-needed push that keeps the story and the characters moving along. Huang Bo is at the top of his game under the direction of his Crazy Stone co-star, having great fun as an unstoppable villain who sometimes is not unlike a cyborg from the Terminator films.
Still, the focus here should actually be on the reunion of Journey pair Xu Zheng and Wang Baoqiang. Despite acting as both director and star, Xu still makes a fine straight man next to Wang, playing a more hyper variation on the simpleton character that he was born to play (though Wangís childlike antics may annoy some). While neither gives a performance that could be termed a breakthrough, the two stars once again make a great comic duo. As in Journey, their onscreen chemistry plays a major role in Thailand's success.
Xu's direction also elevates Lost in Thailand beyond other Mainland Chinese comedies. Despite taking up all filmís major creative roles, Xu seems to appropriately focus his energy on the writing as well as establishing the proper comic timing. Each joke is set up and delivered expertly, making the first-time director look like an experienced pro who knows how to put together a film. The 30 million yuan film (actually not a modest budget for a comedy) looks technically polished, while Xu's direction is appropriately uncomplicated and without excessive stylistic touches.
If there is any real complaint about the film, it's the loss of cultural specificity. Lost on Journey appealed to Chinese audiences by using a familiar formula to tackle a uniquely Chinese problem (the Lunar New Year holiday migration). On the other hand, Lost in Thailand chooses to appeal to audiences with a universal message (i.e., the hero learns to take time to stop and smell the roses) and Thailand's exotic scenery. The humor is rarely mean, and the film is overall tame enough that it's appropriate for anyone over 10 years of age. However, because of its formulaic story and ideas, the film may lack appeal for overseas audiences who arenít familiar with the stars and language-specific humor.
Nevertheless, Lost in Thailand is an expertly crafted piece of popular entertainment that will please the masses and fortunately doesn't try to do much more. The filmís success is not due to it being a particularly original film. Instead, itís successful because it shows audiences that Chinese directors can adopt age-old formulas and execute them just as well as the rest of the world. While directors like Jiang Wen and Ning Hao are busy trying to show off how smart they are, Xu Zheng sticks to the basics and delivers a straightforward comedy with an easy-to-understand message that doesnít pander to anyone. Lost in Thailand won't make any critic's top ten list, but it is essentially what a commercial Chinese film should be.
(Kevin Ma, 12/2012)