HONG KONG - The director of China's biggest box-office hit says "Lost in Thailand" succeeded by showing a rarely seen subject: modern Chinese life.
The historical epic, fantasy, action and thriller genres have long filled China's domestic movie screens. But "Lost in Thailand" was a low-budget and light-hearted road-trip tale about an ambitious executive who goes to Thailand to get his boss's approval for a business deal. Along the way he's pursued by a rival co-worker and encounters a wacky tourist who helps him rethink his priorities.
"There is hunger from the audience for movies that talk about the real-life situation in China. That's why the movie rocked," said Xu Zheng, the film's director, writer and star.
"There is a lack of films that talk about things that are related to the life of ordinary people" in China, he added.
Unusually for a Chinese release, the movie was a moral comedy whose characters reflect stressed-out, overworked, wealth-obsessed China.
Xu said his character, businessman Xu Lang, "represented the majority of the people, who are chasing after fame and desire, then becoming successful. That's what most of us do."
The movie starts with the executive hardened by cutthroat business competition and worn out by family troubles. He and a wacky tourist, co-star Wang Baoqiang, experience a series of capers and mishaps in scenes heavy with slapstick humor. In the end, Xu Lang realizes he's had his priorities all wrong.
"Lost in Thailand" smashed domestic box-office records, raking in 1.26 billion yuan ($200 million) last year, an especially surprising tally since it was not released until December. It edged out "Avatar" to become the biggest-grossing Chinese movie ever as China became the world's second-biggest movie market last year.
Most other Chinese-made hits last year were in traditional categories, such as Jackie Chan's action flick "CZ12," which was the second-highest-grossing Chinese movie in 2012.
The blockbuster success of "Lost in Thailand" may spur a wave of copycats. Xu has no plan yet for a sequel, but the state-run Xinhua News Agency has reported studios are lining up to "chase the craze" and a burst of such films could hit Chinese screens this year.
With such a huge return from its $2.2 million budget, "some filmmakers have begun pondering how to replicate the film's box office miracle," Xinhua said. It did not mention any specific projects, but other Chinese news sites have been buzzing about Raymond Yip's upcoming film about two brothers on a road trip.
Yip directed 2010's "Lost on Journey," a sort of prequel to "Lost in Thailand" also starring Xu and Wang. The plot of his new film, "Along Crazy All The Way," which has a different cast, is being kept under wraps. But a hint can be found in the title, which is the same as one of two Chinese names given to "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," the 1987 Hollywood comedy starring Steve Martin and John Candy about a man trying to get home for Thanksgiving accompanied by an obnoxious salesman.
Xu has acted in more than a dozen movies, but "Lost in Thailand" is his directorial debut. He said the film was greatly influenced by a few of his favorite Hollywood movies.
"I did a lot of research before making the film and I used some films as reference, such as `Rain Man,' (the Belgian film) `The Eighth Day' and `Midnight Run,'" Xu said. "These are movies about two people becoming friends along the way on a journey."
Xu cited "Midnight Run" in particular as one of his favorites, and the parallels between the two are evident. The 1998 film stars Robert DeNiro as a bounty hunter taking an ex-mob accountant played by Charles Grodin from New York to Los Angeles to collect a payment and trying to avoid the Mafia and the FBI along the way.
Xu said he hasn't yet decided what his next project will be. He said he's had some offers to remake his movie but for now his priority will be on Chinese audiences. He might return to acting but is taking his time before making any decisions.