Hit Chinese movie offers useful insights

Suwatchai Songwanich in Bangkok/The Nation
Asia News Network

Bangkok (The Nation/ANN) - Chinese moviegoers have flocked in their millions to see Lost In Thailand, a comedy about Chinese men travelling around Thailand and finding greater meaning in their lives. Released last December, the movie has proved the most popular in China's history and is expected to provide a great boost to the Thai tourism industry, especially given the importance of Chinese tourists, Thailand's biggest market.

Last year, 2.79 million Chinese came here, up by 62 percent from 2011. Growth from China is needed to compensate for the ongoing downturn in European visitors, and will be a key factor if the Thai tourism industry is to meet its target of Bt 2 trillion in tourist revenue by 2015 (total revenue in 2012 was around Bt 965 billion).

By contrast, Back To 1942, a very serious Chinese movie which took 10 years to make and tells the story of a major drought in 1942 that killed millions in Henan province, was released about the same time as Lost In Thailand. It made less than half the money it expected to, prompting its director, a man used to success, to say he was no longer proud of his nation.

Apart from the benefits to the Thai tourism industry, there's another element to the Lost In Thailand phenomenon which offers some insight into modern China. Yes, the movie is relatively light-hearted, with a lot of slapstick humor so even those who can't understand Chinese can enjoy it. But underlying the "road-buddy" storyline is the tale of an uptight Chinese businessman joining up with a laid-back countryman and realizing the importance of spiritual and emotional fulfillment instead of just material wealth.

While it is easy to overplay the "spiritual quest" theme, the amount of analysis on this topic in the wake of the movie's success illustrates the soul searching China's economic success story is causing - at least among those whose material comfort allows them the relative luxury of introspection.

The reaction has been strongest from urban Chinese who have benefited most from the rapid growth in living standards. Peking University Professor Zhang Yiwu, an expert on Chinese cinema and literature, told Hong Kong's 'South China Morning Post' that the movie's main character portrays the worry and anxiety so common among the Chinese middle classes. These people "are ambitious and push for success and material wealth, while many of them feel confused and tired and even like they are losing themselves. Lost In Thailand is a very good movie for invoking thought and showing the frailty of urban citizens."

Many fans described the movie as like a mirror, causing them to reflect on just how much of their lives are taken up with material pursuits. Indeed, China's story of rapid development and the corresponding rise of a materialistic culture reflects the experience of many other developing countries - Bangkok's always-crowded shopping malls, for example, are a testimony to the enthusiasm of Thai consumers.

If Lost In Thailand is released in Thailand, I recommend you see it - for its entertainment value and for its subtle insights into Chinese attitudes to their increasing wealth.

Suwatchai Songwanich is the Chief Executive Officer of Bangkok Bank (China).