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.
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.
And 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
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).
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.
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.
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!