China film finds success in comedy

The surprise success of a small budget locally made comedy film highlights demand for such movies in China and could become an area of strength for domestic producers.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 January, 2013, 10:25am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 January, 2013, 12:16pm

The headlines this first week of January have been filled with figures on China's box office for 2012, with many in the media predictably focusing on the fact that foreign films overtook domestic ones to win the box office crown last year. But from my perspective, more interesting is the fact that a low-budget domestically produced comedy quietly surged at the end of the year to steal the title as the nation's biggest earning film of the year, taking the crown from the far more expensive and highly hyped 3D makeover of James Cameron's film Titanic.

Chinese film buffs will know the movie I'm talking about is the sleeper hit called Lost in Thailand, about two businessmen who go to Thailand to find their boss, and then meet up with a tourist eager to explore the country. The film was shot and marketed on a modest budget of just 30 million yuan (US$4.8 million), but has gone on to become the first Chinese-made production to earn more than one billion yuan at the box office. What's more, it was released at the end of the year and will remain in theatres for a few more weeks, meaning it will easily earn far more than Titanic 3D, which was previously set to take the 2012 box office crown with 939 million yuan in ticket sales.

No one is really talking about the reasons for the huge success of Lost in Thailand, or the implications for China-made films. But my own theory is that this film has tapped a huge but largely unsatisfied demand for locally-made comedy films, in a market where drama, tragedy, martial arts and fantasy movies currently dominate the local production scene.

Before I go any further, let's step back and take a look at the big picture, what saw China's box office revenues grow nearly 30 per cent last year to reach 16.8 billion yuan. Within that figure, foreign films accounted for 52.4 per cent of the total, surpassing domestically produced films to take the majority of ticket sales for the first time in four years. The surge for foreign films came even though only 76 imported movies were shown in China last year, accounting for about a quarter of the 303 titles released domestically during the year.

Foreign films got a boost early in the year when incoming President Xi Jinping announced the country would raise the quota for imported films eligible for revenue sharing to 34 from a previous longtime quota of 20. Only three domestically produced films were among the 10 highest earning movies for the year, with the other two coming from more traditional Chinese genres.

While many may focus on the fact that foreign films continued to dominate and even boost their position in the market, I think the surprise success of Lost in Thailand is equally if not more significant for the domestic movie-making industry. In many ways, the film's strong showing mirrors the equally surprise success of a 2008 small budget film in Taiwan called Cape No. 7. Both films found their success by focusing on light-hearted, funny stories that didn't attempt to have any big social messages.

As a longtime China resident, one of my biggest frustrations with the local movie and literature markets has been the fixation among artists on tragedy and melodrama, with little or no attention on lighter, funnier stories that would undoubtly appeal to today's overworked, stressed-out Chinese. This kind of comedy is one place where Chinese could clearly beat out the imported films, since so much of humor is local and doesn't usually travel well between cultures.

Accordingly, local movie watchers should be encouraged by the success of Lost in Thailand, which will hopefully lead to more similar comedies and lighter entertainment. If they follow that cue, domestic films could quickly find a new and effective niche where they can effectively compete with their bigger budget foreign competitors.

Bottom line: The surprise success of a small budget locally made comedy film highlights demand for such movies in China and could become an area of strength for domestic producers.

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