The Profound Subtext of China’s Record-Breaking Hit Movie, Lost in Thailand

When one thinks of blockbuster Chinese films, one does not readily call to mind movies that offer legitimate social critique. One thinks, instead, of the Kung Fu choreography of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; or of the historical epics that Zhang Yimou, the director who oversaw the 2008 Olympic opening ceremonies, has made of late; or of the action films of Jackie Chan, whose latest film, CZ12, catapulted into one of the top five highest grossing Chinese films of all time; or of the romantic comedies of Feng Xiaogang, the two latest of which have not only been financially successful but have spun off a popular dating show.

Lost in Thailand

Lost in Thailand film poster

The absence of societal criticism in high profile Chinese films is hardly a surprise. The Communist Party is not known for its appreciation of dissenting viewpoints. To be fair, the lack of tolerance for questioning social mores certainly predates Mao. In fact Confucianism, which Mao did his best to, well, level, agrees with Mao concerning the necessity of maintaining a common set of uniform social ideals. Indeed, this shared conception among a people of what is worthy of respect and what is not is the foundation of the concept of face which is ever-present in China.

Face & “Lost in Thailand”

David Yao-Fei Ho defines face as “the respectability or deference which a person can claim for himself from others, by virtue of the relative position he occupies in his social network, and the degree to which he is judged to have functioned adequately in that position as well as acceptably in his general conduct.”

The basic idea is that self-worth is directly related to how one is viewed by the community at large. Importantly, the notion is not just that how we are viewed by others is one aspect of our self-worth. Rather, it is the sole, or if not the sole, the determining factor of self-worth on which everything else hinges so that if that is taken away one’s very being collapses. This is why it is such a big deal to “lose face.”

And it is why the success of Chinese comedy hit Lost in Thailand should be considered as a major cultural phenomenon. Not because the low budget comedy released late in the year went on to become the highest grossing movie in Chinese history. But because a film that poses questions about the fundamental values of Chinese society—in particular, about what is and is not worthy of respect, that is, about face—went on to become the highest grossing movie in that country’s history.

Although the fact that this challenge is delivered via a light comedy helps to explain the film’s getting through Chinese censors (no small accomplishment), this does not account for its record breaking run. The film is funny, but not that funny. In order to understand Lost in Thailand’s unexpected blockbuster status, we will have to examine the nature of the conflict the film explores as well as the resolution it proposes.

The China Dream Examined

The plot of Lost in Thailand centers on two businessmen — Xu Lang and Gao Bo — who are separately racing to Thailand in order to get their boss’s signature on a contract for a product their company has developed. The one who is successful will become a millionaire many times over; the other will not only lose a large amount of money but face as well, since he will be unable to purchase the houses, cars, vacations, and education for his children that are the status symbols of contemporary Chinese culture.

PandaAnd here we have the first key to understanding the film’s appeal: the premise line captures the current zeitgeist of the Chinese middle class: a squeezed population in search of its own Chinese dream, which is like the American dream on steroids. The Chinese dreams involves not just a house, two kids and a car, but one kid, who has to go to the best school possible, and whose parents have to own the biggest apartment and largest automobile. In other words, a Chinese dream threatening to turn into a nightmare for many since ultimately it will be obtainable for so few.

As the director and star of the movie, Xu Zheng put it in an interview, the central character “represents the majority of the Chinese people, who are chasing after fame and desire.”

Into this tense situation drops a bit of comic relief in the form of a small town onion roll maker who, at first glance, seems qualified for nothing more than the position of village idiot in any town that might be in need of one. When we first encounter the orange-haired Bao Bao he is dressed in a multi-colored pair of Thai fisherman’s pants, a bright blue t-shirt and a red tour group baseball cap, seated on a plane next to the formally attired but none-too-happy Xu Lang, one of the businessmen rushing to Thailand. In addition to being locked in a life and death struggle at work, Xu is dealing with a marriage that is falling apart precisely because of his commitment to the project that might make him a millionaire. To top it off, he has a terrible toothache.

Not only does Bao Bao stand out physically from his peers. There are soon signs that differences are more than skin deep. As he shares his itinerary for the trip with his seatmate, Bao Bao needs to be informed that the Taj Mahal is not in Thailand and that ladyboys are not in fact ladies. More bizarrely, he tells his seatmate that his girlfriend is the famous Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, although the only evidence he presents for this claim is a picture cut out from a magazine. Neither the audience nor Xu is surprised when Bao Bao announces that it’s time to take his meds.

If Bao Bao obviously rejects the concern with outward appearance that is a central part of face, neither does he seem particularly interested in that other part of face, not outward appearance but outward success. At one point Xu Lang lays out a business plan according to which Bao Bao could take his onion roll business national and become a multi-millionaire. When Bao Bao expresses no interest in the scheme, Xu grimly declares that this will mean that Bao Bao will have to make onion rolls for the rest of his life—a prospect that Bao Bao greets as if he had won the lottery. The drive for wealth which seems to have cost Xu his marriage, his relationship with his child, and his friendship with his former college classmate who is now his competitor racing down to Thailand, the drive which drives so much of contemporary China–the drive for wealth, fame, houses, bling and did I say wealth?–none of this has any meaning in Bao Bao’s world.

Bao Bao’s difference from his peers involves not only monetary matters but moral ones as well. Soon after he arrives in Thailand, Xu loses his passport and is forced to enlist Bao Bao’s aide, promising to help the onion roll maker fulfill his wish list of things to do in Thailand in return for his assistance. The offer is a classic example of guanxi—the you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-your-back mentality that is at the heart not only of Chinese business culture but of Chinese culture, where it is assumed that humans are inherently egoistic so that the only reason to act is in order to further one’s own self-interest.

Bao Bao, by contrast, views the two of them as working in conjunction, as a team, and even gives them a team name, Thailand Legend. When later in the film a frustrated Xu informs his companion that he was only using him, Bao Bao truly seems crushed by the revelation.

Interpreting the “Bao Bao” Character

Baobao

Bao Bao from Lost in Thailand

Comparisons have been made between the character of Bao Bao and that of Zach Galifianakis’s character in the Hangover movies. A more apt analogy, however, would be to Forrest Gump. Like Gump, Bao Bao embodies a simple and basic moral purity that stands in stark contrast to the darker motives of those he encounters. Not only is he both unaware that Xu may just be using him for his own advantage and unmoved by Xu’s competitor’s offer of a bribe in exchange for information. When Xu (falsely) asserts that it is because of his affair with Gao Bo’s wife that his partner is chasing him, Bao Bao truly seems to be unable to comprehend that someone would commit such an act, and is doubly shocked when he learns Xu himself has a wife and child.

Bao Bao’s simple view of marital fidelity stands in contrast, if not to Xu (who seems to have been faithful), at least to the “my mistress is younger than your mistress” mentality that, along with baijiu drinking, is such a big part of Chinese business culture. So that we don’t miss the connection to Gump (which happens to be a favorite film of many Chinese), the filmmaker has Bao Bao declare at one point “you never know what to expect in life,” a less poetic version of Gump’s famous “life is like a box of chocolates” line.

Modern China & Self Examination

American film has some classic examples of protagonists who possess a childlike innocence and moral purity but who are viewed as idiots by respectable society. One thinks, for example, of the above mentioned Gump, or of Elwood P. Dowd from Harvey or of Chance the Gardener in Being There. Invariably, the point of such characters is to raise concerns about the underlying values of the society, suggesting that a social order that dismisses such individuals needs to take a good look at itself (or, in the case of Being There, a society that takes such a character is in serious need of self-examination).

Allen Ginsberg

Beat writer Allen Ginsberg

But this motif exists in no small part because there is a tradition of social criticism in America — from the prophets to the Sunday preachers and from the Transcendentalists to the Beats — that proclaims the fabric of society is inherently corrupt and in need of changing. It is a message Americans are used to hearing, and one that occasionally sinks in.

By contrast, a society such as China grounded in the concept of face would seem to have no room for such a radical critique of its fundamental values. This is because the notion of face, like that of money itself, depends not on any inherent reality but on a shared belief in the concept. If people en masse stop believing little green pieces of paper can be exchanged for goods and services, the whole economic system would collapse. Just so, if people in a face-based society abandon the shared standards by which judgments of respectability are made, that society is in danger of disintegrating into chaos, since in such a social structure the values are grounded in consensus itself.

Face Without Rejection

Hence, when at the end of the film Xu abandons his effort to secure the contract and instead opts to spend more time focusing on his family, the radical nature of this move (though not as radical as it might be, as we will see) should not be overlooked. Xu is doing nothing less than refusing to take seriously his society’s concept of face, explicitly rejecting the notion that your worth in society will be in proportion to your wealth and power. For Xu, it is not society’s view that matters, but his view of what is important that will win the day.

Equally important, it is his journey with the simple but good natured Bao Bao, dismissed as an idiot by respectable society and, for most the film, by Xu as well, that has transformed him. Indeed, Bao Bao’s role in bringing Xu to this realization is given physical incarnation within the film when we see Bao Bao perform a Thai boxing kick in self-defense on Xu, thus removing his painful tooth, and, reminding us of Saul Bellow’s line in his classic Henderson the Rain King: Truth comes in blows.

In Conclusion

How many others will follow Xu in abandoning the pursuit of wealth and status that is the essence of face in modern China is hard to say. Given the popularity of the film, it is a path with appeal to a large number of Chinese who have seen beyond the movie’s modest humor to its real message. Importantly, though, Xu does not completely turn his back on social respectability. Hence, the film’s critique is a limited one, advocating a moderation in the desire for socially recognized goods and not a rejection.

Tranquil China

A more radical move — a move to the opposite of face or what we might label authenticity — would involve a complete dismissal of socially recognized standards of value and a reliance one’s inner sense as the sole standard of self-worth that one sees, for example, in the Beats or in the Transcendentalists. But it is clear at least for now neither Xu nor China itself is ready to go that far.

Still, given where it started out, Lost in Thailand takes us on no small journey.

If you’ve seen Lost in Thailand or have thoughts on the topic to share, I hope you leave a comment below!

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About Peter Vernezze

Peter Vernezze came to Chengdu in 2006 and is an educational consultant, philosophical counselor and academic. Peter is the author of "Socrates in Sichuan: Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice and the Chinese Way."

20 Responses to “The Profound Subtext of China’s Record-Breaking Hit Movie, Lost in Thailand”

  1. I remember when this movie came out I saw it in theaters and thought it looked pretty ridiculous. After learning about this side of the movie, I will definitely find a copy and watch it. Funny that you mention the similarity of Baobao’s character to Zach Galafianakis’ in The Hangover. You can really see a similarity with the hair, dress, and overall aloof vibe of that character.

    Now I’m really curious about how many Chinese people consciously perceived the message that this film delivers, and how it conflicts with the popular idea of peer-approved success.

  2. Yeah i too wonder how much of this came across, and how much is just Peter thinking deep about a movie. But the current I sense in China is indeed a reaction to status and face as the definition of someone’s value, to themselves and to society.

    People who rely too much on status and face are often ridiculed in daily discourse in China – think 土豪 – but even so, everyone who can buy an iPhone 5S definitely will. And people still make fun of someone smoking cheap smokes.

    The counter current is weak, but it exists, and this movie, if indeed the producers thought that deep, is something to be grateful for.

  3. Ray

    This was shown on a flight i took recently and the Chinese passengers were loving it. I’m not a big fan of crazy-face-pulling slapstick (kill me before forcing me to watch Jim Carrey), but I did notice it was really noisy and lotsa running around and crazy-face-pulling….

    • Right, my interpretation of this movie upon first glance was that it was a mindless, slapstick comedy movie. It’s good to hear otherwise. Finding a downloadable copy of this movie turned out to be surprisingly very easy (Google or search on kat.ph).

    • I’ve also seen this flick being projected in the apartment complex opposite our shop.

      As you say, there was a huge crowd of people standing around soaking it up. They seemed to really enjoy it and this was tough for me to get because it just seems to be painfully plain slapstick.

  4. Very shallow interpretation and arbitrary recourse to Chinese cultural traits (face, guanxi, etc.) to explain a movie and a nation – whose “Chinese culture”? The “China’s culture” of what period?

    “a society such as China grounded in the concept of face would seem to have no room for such a radical critique of its fundamental values”

    Really? Do you know about the late eighties? Or about the Communist revolution? Or about the founding of the republic? Or the fall of the Qing dynasty? lol.

    • None of the events you mention are a critique of face per se, which is a fundamental value of most East Asian societies (and all societies I would say, but that’s not my point).

      1) I assume you mean 1989, which was a critique of Deng’s Theory of Opening Up and Reform, which excluded the “Fourth Modernization” which was considered by students and intellectuals at the time to be democracy

      2) The communist revolution was a rebellion against a) kleptocracy, b) imperialism, c) monarchy, d) feudalism and also traditional Chinese culture in the form of Taoism/Buddhism, Confucianism, Wushu and a host of other things … but I don’t see a rebellion against the very, very basic notion of face.

      The other two events you mention are repeats of the first two.

      Not to say that people haven’t rebelled against Face as a measure of value (especially when face means Gucci or other materialistic things) – throughout Chinese history there are rebellions and counter-movments and pretty much everything else under the sun,

      I think Peter here is talking about Face as a very basic part of Chinese culture, below political and social hierarchy, below religion and other accoutrements of culture, and closer to the core of what drives East Asian society. So that’s not shallow, in my opinion.

      I think a better critique of the essay would be: No such thing evident in the movie, this is just slapstick and you are projecting.

      • The concept of “Face” as a social value in person-to-person interactions is equivalent to the idea of “Manners” in Western Society. That is, East Asian Societies imposes an informal set of social protocols governing inter-personal relations, based upon one’s rank in the social hierarchy.

        To illustrate this concept of “Face” as a social ritual, let’s say you’re the middle-class male office employee of a wealthy male company owner who has a daughter celebrating her birthday. The boss decides to give two birthday parties, one in the office for the employees and the other in the family mansion for close friends and relatives.

        Scenario One: the daughter who has a crush on you invites YOU to attend the birthday party in the family mansion. Should you go or not?

        Scenario Two: the daughter has a boyfriend from a wealthy family. The boyfriend who has befriended you invites YOU to attend the birthday party in the family mansion. Should you go or not?

        Scenario Three: you have a girlfriend that would like to attend the birthday party at the office. But your boss tells you that her daughter will be attending same party. Should you bring your girlfriend or not?

        Finally, there’s also the cultural value of “Honor” which can be personal, family, national, etc. The social value of “Face” is interrelated to the cultural value of “Honor” but the distinction between the two should be quite clear: “Face” governs social interactions while “Honor” bestows social privileges based on rank and status.

    • Outside social turmoil and revolution, you’ve got a point. Peter’s claim that the government letting slide a charge on traditional values of face seems to be a stab in the dark.

      It could be interpreted not as outward lambasting of a key social facet of Chinese society, but more so a pointed social remark on the government’s interpretation of cultivating a strong domestic consumer society and exploiting a traditional value set to do so, i.e. the Chinese dream.

      The supposed metanarrative of the film, or, the aspect of face and utilizing guanxi to build face via accumulation of wealth and its outward manifestations (consumerism and gross displays of wealth and excess) in an attempt to climb the social ladder is a unique one. Especially when in reality, as Peter claims (and I agree with) this remains a scarcely achievable for the majority.

      I wouldn’t deride him for being straight-out wrong, but potentially not hitting the nail dead on the head. It could simply be perceived as a positive social narrative that woes the viewer of the government’s attempts to exploit steadfast traditional values to provide for its own means.

      In short it works to educate people to be wary of propaganda and the the popularly received understanding that such displays of wealth and the cutthroat rat race to achieve such wealth sit along the party lines in developing a healthy domestic consumer society that could potentially pit the people against the greater dangers such as waste, environmental devastation and negative affects on the social fabric.

      It’s a vague message shrouded in slapstick, but not one I’d altogether dismiss as pointed in a country whose means for driving the economy and bettering its quality of living comes often comes at a great cost to the people their communities and society at large.

      Basically, don’t eat the bullshit the party feeds you via their warping of the importance of face and guanxi, immutable and outstanding aspects of the culture that precede any political or economic structure.

    • I have to agree with Greg Saens about this pseudo-intellectual hogwash passing off as film criticism. This author is just making things up such as his audacious claim that “a society such as China grounded in the concept of face would seem to have no room for such a radical critique of its fundamental values”.

      This movie is neither the first nor last of what I’d call the Chinese movie genre of City Slicker meet Country Bumpkin. In fact, “Lost in Thailand (2012)” was preceded two years earlier by “Lost on Journey (2010)” featuring the same duo played by Zheng Xu and Baoqiang Wang. The third actor, Huang Bo, also starred as the male lead playing the blue-collar carpenter Huang Da chasing after his elitist piano-playing artist girlfriend played by Lin Chi-Ling in “Say Yes”, a romantic comedy set in cosmopolitan Shanghai.

      This author confuses the social value of “Face” with the amoral nihilism of Deng’s China. Did the Chinese lose “Face” under Mao’s rule when everybody wore the same drab Mao suit, rode the same drab bicycle and lived in the same drab public housing? The Chinese drive for Wealth has nothing to do with face but has everything to do with China’s quest for Power in a world ruled by the West. And when I mean Power, I mean economic, political and military power. Period.

      This author is better off watching more Chinese movies so he’ll be equipped with at least a modicum understanding of the different genres of the Chinese Zeitgeist.
      And he should read Chinese history to grasp why Chinese behave they do today.

  5. Is this the Dumber and Dumber meets The Hangover of China?

  6. I watched this with my Chinese friends and noticed they reacted strongly to the slapstick moments. I think the most memorable moment for an ordinary Chinese person is not the denouement where we find out he will abandon the business plan to pursue family business, but the massage part. I’m sure if you asked a few Chinese friends what part of the film was memorable, they wouldn’t say anything to do with the rejection of face.

    Let’s experiment. I just asked two friends what they thought were the most memorable moments of the film. One said the elevator scene where they encounter a ladyboy, and the other said the massage scene in the hotel.

    I think Peter is just making an imaginative interpretation. This film will have zero effect on China’s face culture.

  7. Ray

    It’s not a brave film at all; the moral message was inserted to avoid the wrath of the Chinese censors, especially in the wake of the box office success and criticism of “Tiny Times”. Currently there’s a Chinese film in cinemas, I think it translates as “Land Without People” (sorry, not sure). Anyway, this film has just been granted a release after 4 years of fighting the Chinese censors. It required extensive cuts and eve re-shoots. it depicts a lawless region of China where anarchy is widespread and all semblance of order has disappeared. To even produce such a controversial film and attempt to win distribution was brave (or foolish).

  8. I watched this movie and even though I didn’t really understand what was going on, it was still funny. Hard to pick up the really profound bits, I find.

  9. I love Chinese movies, not necessarily the ones with lot of kung fu action, they dominate the market but there are still some movies that make you think of essences just as other valuable movies. For me Chinese movies are somehow exotic, that’s why I don’t miss the chance to see one or another.

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