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China's Record-Breaking 'Lost in Thailand' Prepares to Sink 'Titanic'

UPDATED: Now crowned the highest-grossing domestic release after the Christmas break, Xu Zheng’s romp could unseat James Cameron as the country’s box-office champion in 2012.

HONG KONG – For the past few months, many a captain of the Chinese film industry has been praying for a local production to gallop in and save what they see as a business in distress, as Hollywood blockbusters – led by the chart-topping trio of Titanic 3D, The Avengers and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol – came and conquered, taking home more than 55 percent of the total box office takings this year.

While the success of Painted Skin: Resurrection provided some respite – the 3D film became the highest-grossing domestic production in Chinese history with earnings of 702 million yuan (US$112.5 million) during its month-long run in July – the year seemed headed for a depressing finale as even the most commercially bankable filmmaker in China today, Feng Xiaogang, found his historical epic Back to 1942 unable to dislodge Ang Lee’s Life of Pi from pole position in the weekly box office standings.

And out of nowhere, the savior came in the form of Lost in Thailand. The film had already taken 677 million yuan (US$108.5 million) by Dec. 23, according to figures released on the official China Film News portal.  But on Dec. 27, quoting a much-visited Chinese box office message board on weibo -- China's equivalent to Twitter -- the Southern Metropolis Daily reported the film has now secured 762 million yuan (US$122.2 million) after Dec. 25 --  thus breaking Resurrection’s record  after being in cinemas for less than a fortnight. (Resurrection's record was attained over 39 days in July and August.)

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The film, directorial debut of comedian Xu Zheng, has emerged victorious from a very busy week, with the Chinese box office recording a historical high in attendance and ticket sales (20 million viewers paying 710 million yuan/US$113.7 million from Dec. 17-Dec. 23). Jackie Chan’s Chinese Zodiac, which opened Dec. 20, has given Xu a fair running with earnings of 225 million yuan (US$36 million), with the film's production company reporting a post-Christmas total of over 300 million yuan (US$48.1 million).

The two other newly released challengers – The Guillotines and The Last Tycoon – squeezed out of the frame with takings of 27 million yuan (US$4.3 million) and 23 million yuan (US$3.7 million) respectively. (Life of Pi, which is still on release, has now clocked up 570 million yuan/US$91.3 million, with Back to 1942 on 364 million yuan/US$58.3 million.)

Commentators are now talking up the possibility of Lost in Thailand surging past the magical 1 billion yuan barrier – a stunning performance which would lead to a triumph of the film (and the domestic film industry it is seen to represent) over James Cameron’s stereoscopic 3D re-release of Titanic, which took 977 million yuan (US$156.5 million) in the country in the spring. In any case, the film has already made records aplenty, including the highest revenue in a single day (160 million yuan/US$25.6 million on Dec. 15) and in a first week (310 million yuan/US$49.7 million) – an amazing achievement no less, given the absence of 3D or Imax mark-ups.

And it achieved with a fraction of money spent, too. The comedy, which revolves around the travails of two rival entrepreneurs and a wacky pancake-making bumpkin on a journey across Thailand, was reportedly made on a budget of just 30 million yuan (US$4.8 million); while expected to perform much better than Lost on Journey, the Xu-led comedy which cost 10 million yuan (US$1.6 million) and earned 45 million (US$7.2 million) in 2010, Lost in Thailand was not viewed as a major record-breaker or game-changer – so much so that A-lister Fan Bingbing, who was last rumored to have been cast in Iron Man 3, agreed to do an unpaid cameo in the film so as to "help" her first-time filmmaker friend Xu. (How she must have regretted this now.)

While the absence of a major U.S. competitor might have contributed to the success of Lost in Thailand – both Skyfall and The Hobbit were put back for release in 2013 – the popularity of the film among mainland Chinese audiences is very telling about what the future beckons in a market which is slated to become, according to a recent Ernst & Young report, the biggest in the world by 2020.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter before the release of Lost in Thailand, Le Vision Pictures CEO Zhang Zhao – who finances and distributes both Chinese films and also international productions like The Expendables 2 – predicts that U.S. blockbusters will meet a growing challenge in China from local productions which would connect better with local audiences. Hollywood imports would land in China like "an elephant attacked by 50 monkeys," he said.

The sentiment is illustrated by the praise the film received online. "Some people have described Lost in Thailand as the Chinese version of The Hangover, and you can't say it's completely wrong, despite being obviously very different films," wrote blogger Happy Moyi on the mtime movie portal. "What the two films have in common are how they could connect to things on the ground."

This view mirrors the authorities’ official line, as shown in an article posted on the state newspaper China Daily’s website on Tuesday. "The comedy won rave reviews by giving Chinese audiences what they want: popular stars, funny dialogue, good timing and a prompt for self-reflection," said the unsigned opinion piece from the official Xinhua News Agency. "Moreover, religious and political fanatics are absent from the movie, making it a breeze to sit through."