Scoring more than $160 million in three weeks to become China’s highest-grossing domestic film ever, “Lost in Thailand” is a boisterous, joyously hokey comedy that connects with auds through its explicit desire to please. Helmed by lead actor Xu Zheng, the $2.2 million-budgeted follow-up to 2010’s modest hit “Lost on Journey” is unexpectedly well honed for a debut feature. Peppering this feel-good road movie with the perkier thrills of a cat-and-mouse chase, Xu draws sparks from a talented comic trio cast as three Beijingers on an accident-prone journey to Chiangmai. Boffo B.O. should stoke offshore ancillary interest.
Having clocked nearly 30 million admissions (it’s poised to challenge China’s two top-grossing films, “Avatar” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”), this lightweight entertainment is no masterpiece, but has proven a refreshing antidote to the year-end glut of blockbusters.
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Written and directed by Hong Kong duo Raymond Yip and Manfred Wong, “Lost on Journey” starred Xu and Wang Baoqiang in an odd-couple road pic modeled on “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” Relocated to a foreign country, the sequel sacrifices its predecessor’s strong regional color for broader attitude and greater narrative whimsy. Playing new characters, Xu and Wang retain the oddball dynamic they had as men of different class and values, but the plot devices that bring them together feel more scripted. Thankfully, this is offset by the decision to bring character actor Huang Bo into the mix (he previously teamed with Xu in “Crazy Stone” and “Crazy Racer”), creating a more complex synergy.
An energy-company exec who helped develop a miracle fuel called Supergas, Xu Lang (Xu) is determined to secure the patent before his colleague Gao Bo (Huang) does, and he tries to track down reclusive prexy Zhou to buy out his stake. When Xu learns that Zhou has retired to a temple retreat in Chiangmai, he books the next flight to Thailand, unaware that Gao is hot on his heels. On the plane, he is besieged by friendly overtures from fellow passenger Wang Bao (Wang), an onion-crepe chef armed with a tourist’s to-do list that rivals “Eat Pray Love.”
Although Xu can’t wait to get rid of Wang at Bangkok Airport, circumstances and self-interest conspire to make him take on the doofus as an unlikely travel companion. The first big comic setpiece takes place in a deluxe hotel (riffing on a similar setup in “Journey”). The highlight is a farcical bedroom sequence that crosscuts between two wildly incongruous activities, the bawdy effect of which is enhanced by the three thesps’ expressive body language; still, the tasteless jokes directed at transvestites will make many auds cringe.
From that point onward, Wang and Xu get into one scrape after another as they traverse the Thai hinterland, while Gao keeps leaping out of nowhere to sabotage their activities. Amid the din of fast-moving dialogue and slapstick, the narrative pauses for a serene scene of Thai locals hoisting airborne lanterns into the sky, one of the film’s numerous reminders to stop and smell the roses — a message that seems to have struck a chord with busy mainland auds.
This theme also lends philosophical depth to the comical clash of mindsets between Wang and Xu: One lingers to absorb every new experience, while the other can’t wait to reach his goal. One’s bottomless desire to please is met by the other’s crabby displeasure. Xu’s eventual shift in perspective, though formulaic in nature, still packs an emotional wallop.
Wang’s flamboyant character has broad appeal as an outre variation on the gullible hicks he played in “Blind Shaft,” “World Without Thieves,” “Mr. Tree” and “Lost on Journey.” Xu plays the dyspeptic go-getter with barbed wit, softened with a hint of self-doubt. The most mean-spirited role falls to Huang, who proves as irrepressible as Wang in his determination to have his way.
The tech package is garishly slick; the postcard Thai locations, though pleasant, mostly serve to advance the plot.