Why Lost in Hong Kong could overtake Monster Hunt to become 2015's biggest Chinese film
Audiences love it, critics pan it … and cynics say it's all down to marketing
The mainland blockbuster Lost in Hong Kong may be setting records for a Chinese-language film, but critics say its success is more down to clever marketing than quality production.
Since debuting on September 25, the film has brought in 1.2 billion yuan (HK$1.46 billion) at the box office, in the process becoming the first to take in more than 200 million yuan on its first day - and on each of its first three days - of screening. It's also projected to overtake the 2.43 billion yuan brought in by Monster Hunt - another domestic production - to become the year's biggest film.
The comedy, directed by Xu Zheng, follows a holiday in Hong Kong taken by Xu Lai (played by Xu Zheng), his wife Cai Bo (Zhao Wei) and his brother-in-law (Bao Bei'er).
Xu plans to secretly visit his university sweetheart Yang Yi (supermodel Du Juan), but Cai's puerile younger brother Cai Lala tags along like an unwelcome shadow to spoil the rendezvous.
Despite the records, the film has been panned by many critics and some industry insiders say its triumph is more one of marketing than filmmaking.
"There's no doubt that Lost in Hong Kong is the best marketing performer in China's film industry this year," said Yuan Lin, research director of EntGroup, which produces analysis for the entertainment industry.
The film had chosen a good sales window that covered both the Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day, and had been cleverly promoted, she said.
"The first press conference to promote the film was held as early as March, which was followed by several others in the following months. Every time it managed to 'create a topic' to catch people's attention online and offline," she said.
Professor Li Daoxin, from the arts department of Peking University, added that cinema attendance on the mainland had risen greatly over the past decade.
"New box office records have been created time and time again in recent years," he said.
But the quality of domestically made films hadn't progressed as much as the audience numbers, Li added.
"Audiences today are not interested in movies that go along with deep thought or explore serious topics," he said.
Many critics have also been left unimpressed by the film.
At douban.com the mainland's most active and most influential review website, the film received a rating of only 6.4 out of 10. That compared to 7.8 for the Hollywood film Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and 7.5 for Xu Zheng's critically acclaimed directorial debut Lost in Thailand, which screened in 2012.
Critic Yang Shiyang said overall the film failed. "It attracts people as a comedy, but there are nearly no laughing points. There are several scenes that make people twitch the corners of their mouth slightly, but people laugh not because of humour, but because of antics," he said.
Yang said there were too many elements to the film - which at parts resembled a road movie or a comedy, but at other times appeared to go soul searching over mid-life crises and the nostalgia of youth.
Xu had been unable to control all of these various threads at the same time, Yang said.
Whatever its detractors say though, the film remains undoubtedly popular.
Xia Hui, from Shanghai, said she went to watch the film last week because her friends had told her it featured more than 10 Cantonese songs that were popular in the 1980s on the mainland.
"When watching the film, I laughed from the beginning to the end, although I was fully aware that the punch lines were superficial and some were dirty jokes," said Xia, 45.
Xia said the film's story of a mid-life crisis resonated for her. "People of my age will like this kind of film," she said.
"It represents the reality."