Do the French, Indians, Japanese or anyone else feel jittery when foreign filmmakers arrive to make movies about their country?
Wang Baoqiang, Xu Zheng and Huang Bo star in Lost in Thailand .
It seems that whenever Hollywood studios or foreign directors make movies about Thailand, we feel a pang of insecurity. Instead of being proud of the images of our beloved country, questions such as these are bound to come up: What are they going to say about us? What kind of joke they are going to make? Or we will think: I bet there will be scenes of drunken guys, half-naked bar girls pole dancing, and drugs galore at a Full Moon Party at Koh Phangan!
Through the occidental lens of filmmakers, mostly from Hollywood, the image of Thailand is sometimes predictable and cliche-strewn: exotic bar girls, Buddhist monks with mysterious smiles, rice fields, elephants, the Songkran festival and the indelible tuk-tuk.
In those films, Thais are portrayed as people who _ for unknown reasons _ smile all the time and say mai pen rai.
It is not that those stereotypes are untrue. Indeed, a film about any country is usually a good mirror that reflects part of reality _ not the whole. But it is misleading and unjust to a country when those packaged images transform into a stereotype of the entire country and more than 70 million people.
Lost In Thailand _ a phenomenal blockbuster Chinese film that has made more than 1 billion yuan (4.8 billion baht) is another foreign film that looks at small parts of Thailand.
The difference is that this movie, made by the small Beijing Enlight Media studio with a budget of about 150 million baht, paints a beautiful picture of Thailand and its people.
The film was written and directed by Xu Zheng, who is also one of the film's stars. He is a moderately popular actor with a solid background in theatre since graduating from Shanghai Theatre Academy. Xu's script depicts Thailand as a lovely country with polite, fun-loving people who live a simple life (not surprising) and this becomes the backdrop for the characters' fast, whirlwind adventures.
The film's poster, showing three funny-faced Chinese guys, promises that viewers will be entertained and tickled. The story is predictable. Xu, with his signature bald head, plays a greedy, self-obsessed businessman on the verge of divorcing his wife. He journeys to Thailand to find his boss, who's holed up in a remote temple in Chiang Mai. This Journey To The West-style trip is not to search for enlightenment _ as it is in the classic Chinese story _ but to secure a legal permit to own a licence for "supergas", renewable energy that will revolutionise the world's energy consumption. Is that what China's obsessed about, green energy?
Like other comedy road movies _ such as the genre-defining Planes, Trains And Automobiles _ Xu ran into an accidental buddy: Baobao, a good-hearted, talkative, monkey-like and clumsy guy who makes a living selling onion cake (a kind of Chinese pita bread).
With his hair dyed red and carrying a cactus tree everywhere, Baobao boasts that his "girlfriend" is the mega-famous Chinese actress Fan Bingbing. Viewers can predict in first minute that Xu and Baobao will become oddball travel buddies and their trips will be marked by misadventures and bad luck that will make us laugh at their troubles and at them. Their lives will be changed, for the better, of course, and these characters present the two sides of China: the business-driven and money-mad new China in Xu and the more traditional and provincial personality in Baobao.
It is easy to assume that Lost In Thailand is a mindless, low-brow slapstick comedy with calamity, insensitive jokes against other people (and sometimes other countries). And yet we don't mind, since the film is lighthearted entertainment through and through that does its job making us laugh.
However, the movie is comparatively culturally sensitive. There are scenes showing images of His Majesty King Bhumibol, and even the jeep they drive at one point sports a sticker reading "We Love The King". The story has not much to do with Thailand _ except those familiar images of elephants and rice fields, while bar girls are replaced with ladyboys. This is more a story of modern Chinese men searching for spiritual pillars as the comrades get lost in capitalism and a materialistic quest.
Xu is reportedly a fan of Thailand. The director/actor has come to Thailand for vacation many times with his wife and daughter, who also appear in this movie.
The story focuses on their lives, their wishes and personal problems, and how they cope with adversity. The Chinese characters are fully manifested and shown as hectic, materially obsessive and conniving, except Baobao.
In all, the film is surprisingly watchable and entertaining. Line-delivery is fast-paced, quoting Chinese maxims quid-pro-quo, and the comic timing is spot on. Despite being written for Chinese mainland viewers (and the box office numbers have proven how effective it has been) anybody can watch and understand 80% of this slapstick comedy. Still, viewers will get the full flavour only if they understand the magnitude and impact of Weibo, the famous Chinese social networking site (think of Facebook plus Twitter and multiply by 10 to grasp its social and political influence).
This is the right kind of movie for those who want to laugh and feel good about Thailand again. The winners are the film studio and the Thai tourism industry. But Thai viewers _ including this reviewer, might ask ourselves: Are we really that nice?