Joy Danjing Zhang
Image copyright by Lost in Hong Kong
Compared with kung-fu luminary Jackie Chan and the comedian/filmmaker Stephen Chow, Xu Zheng is relatively unknown outside of Mainland China. Xu’s directorial path recently culminated in Lost in Hong Kong, completing a trilogy of road-trip comedies that began in 2010 with Lost on Journey. His second offering, Lost in Thailand, made history as China’s highest-grossing domestic film in 2013. Whereas the first of these projects was a low budget home-grown film tailored for domestic tastes, Xu’s subsequent endeavours have connected with larger audiences.
Comedy genres have recently diversified in the PRC, due in no small part to a transfer of talent to the Mainland. Hong Kong used to make the majority of the comedies seen in Mainland China during the 80s and 90s. Stephen Chow and Jackie Chan both have incorporated slapstick routines in a hybrid comedy form influenced by Western films. In contrast, traditional humour in Chinese cinema is essentially conveyed in dialogue; for instance the films of China’s leading director, Feng Xiaogang, highlight a northern Chinese sensibility. This is no doubt due to Feng’s upbringing in Beijing and his association with scions of Beijing urban culture such as the writer Wang Shuo.
Xu Zheng, who grew up in Shanghai and graduated from the Shanghai Theatre Academy, also plays with regional differences; like Feng his funny lines are delivered with an understanding of social tensions in contemporary Chinese society. However, the Lost ‘franchise’ has another element; they utilise overt body language and romantic comedy, still a novelty in Chinese cinema. In Lost in Thailand, the style is similar to Hollywood’s The Hangover, making good use of political jokes and sexual innuendos. In this sense, the Lost franchise represents a risky business. But one can always say that all film making in China is inherently risky in one way or another.
This vein of comedy has certainly made an impact. Unsurprisingly critics have savaged the films for being crass, offensive and culturally insensitive. In Lost in Thailand a Thai transgender person encounters Xu in an escalator, an incident that might be culturally offensive in the East Asian region. Nevertheless the films appeal to large audiences. The home-made jokes reflect the increasing polarization between classes, feelings of economic inequality, problems in family and relationships, as well as playing up generational differences.
Some of the humour might be lost on people with little cultural knowledge. For instance, Lost in Hong Kong capitalises on frustrations between Mainlanders and Hong Kongers. In one scene milk powder explodes, poking fun at restrictions on the purchases of Chinese tourists. If you travel across the border from Shenzhen into China you can’t help noticing warnings about trafficking in milk powder. But the humour works in both directions. In the past Hong Kong cinemagoers had to deal with strange sounding Shandong and Sichuan accents: now mainland audiences are laughing out loud at the funny Mandarin intonations of Cantonese speakers.
Although borrowing ingredients from both Hong Kong and Hollywood, Xu’s comedies provide a fresh perspective on China’s changing society. His films are culturally honest, reflecting Chinese social and moral norms, which emphasise positivity towards overcoming hardships. Family values are also observed. In the ending of Lost in Thailand an ‘honest’ working class character inspires a middle class entrepreneur who is corrupt in both his career and love life, to get back on to the right track. Such an outcome plays to the harmonious tune preferred by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT). It’s a ‘made in China’ story for sure, a slice of life, and it’s managed in this way to navigate censorship.
Xu’s success in combining entertainment with social realities is a good fit: it gets the laughs where it counts. Urban Chinese prefer to be entertained in the cinema rather than experience a propaganda lecture or be forced to relive the war with Japan. The stress of urban life accommodates this kind of subtle escapism. Audiences associate with the everyday persons as portrayed in these films, characters who are caught in the reality of a fast-paced society. In particular the characters Wang Baoxiang and Bao Beier in Lost in Hong Kong represent a working class demographic known as the ‘diaosi’. Not unlike Hollywood’s likeable buffoons, for instance in Dumb and Dumber, the ‘diaosi’ in these films are self-deprecating youth, often losers in a rapidly transforming society. The stories capture their humour, as well as their sarcastic attitudes towards the major characters.
In short, these films characterise a changing society, a restless underclass and a tradition of self-deprecation in humour in Chinese society going as far back in history as Zhuangzi and Confucius, but more recently found in skits and wordplay. In China laughter is good medicine and it’s now become a cash cow for film makers like Xu Zheng.