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Low-budget films worth a million laughs
By Xu Wei

This is the season when Chinese people go to the movies for hesuipian, or New Year's films, and it's a good time to gauge public taste and find out what people really want to see.

There are historic epics like "The Last Supper" about a power-mad emperor and "Back to 1942" about a devastating famine that year in China. And there's Ang Lee's philosophical 3D "Life of Pi" about a boy trapped on a small boat with a tiger - and the meaning of life.

These have been eclipsed by two ridiculous "everyman" comedies, "Bring Happiness Home" and "Lost in Thailand." They're very low budget, but have reaped high returns.

"Bring Happiness Home" is a canine comedy about the adventures of a fluffy white poodle named Le Le that gets lost. Its wealthy owner offers huge reward and many people scramble to find the dog and claim the reward.

Xie Na, a famous TV hostess of the entertainment show "Happy Camp," is dressed like a pirate for some bizarre reason. She and her dim-witted assistant think they can get the reward if they can abduct the dog that has already been kidnapped by gangsters.

There's a car chase, kung fu and a lot of silliness.

The film, budgeted at 30 million yuan (US$4.7 million), earned more than 100 million at the box office nationwide since its release on January 18.

The film has been criticized for being generally superficial, absurd, tacky and poorly acted. It was made to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Hunan Satellite TV's popular entertainment show "Happy Camp." The TV hosts act in the film.

Why is so successful?

The answer is simple. People want to laugh and they don't want heavy fare.

Further, "Bring Happiness Home" already had a large fan base because of the long-running TV show. It also had a microblog support from celebrities.

"We had a clear positioning and promotion plan from the very beginning," director Fu Huayang told reporters. "With light-hearted elements of pet and love, we wanted to make it a film catering for the whole family."

Fu's dog film is not the first "dark horse" production recently.

The biggest surprise was another small-budget film "Lost in Thailand," which turned out to be the highest-grossing Chinese film in China's film history since it screened several weeks ago.

Budgeted at 36 million yuan, it set a box office record of 1.2 billion yuan since it was released on December 12. It surpassed all Hollywood blockbusters shown in China except for "Avatar."

The film was the directorial debut of comic actor Xu Zheng, who also stars in the film. The team was so concerned it would flop that they orchestrated media hype involving one actor's love affair to pique audience interest.

Astonishing success

Its success astonished everyone and already much has been written about it.

"Lost in Thailand" is a wacky road movie about two Chinese businessmen racing each other to find their boss in a remote monastery in northern Thailand to win approval of their rival plans to develop Super Gas.

Thailand is a favorite tourist destination for Chinese and they encounter a Chinese pancake salesman, who is a kind of everyman tourist. They encounter Thai kickboxers, traffic, a snake and other Thailand fixtures.

There's lots of slapstick humor and action, and a joke about "ladyboys" when they mistake a pretty girl in an elevator for a transvestite, not knowing she speaks Chinese.

"The movie is accessible almost to everybody since it has a low entry threshold for understanding and appreciation," says Huang Min, an official with the Ever Shining Circuit Cinema Chain.

Some film experts criticize the critics of low-brow films, calling them elitist and out of touch.

"Both the film and 'Bring Happiness Home' show a typical taste of the general public - who love humor, fun and easy-to-understand plot," Huang says.

The films simply offer release at the end of the year.

IT professional Kevin Zheng says, "After a whole year's hard work, I just want to see a funny film," referring to "Lost in Thailand." "It seemed like the only comedy shown last month. It didn't have heavy themes or convey depth and meaning. That's simply all I want."

He and his friends chat on their microblogs about the film and its funny lines.

The light-hearted fare competed with Feng Xiaogang's disaster film "Back To 1942," which grossed around 300 million yuan; Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," which grossed 570 million yuan; and Lu Chuan's "The Last Supper," which grossed 50 million yuan nationwide.

This is the age of small-budget movies, according to film professionals, and they are no longer the exclusive preserve of professionals and film academy graduates. And, in contrast with "Lost" and "Happiness," there's also potential for excellence.

Lower tech barriers

"Digital video and cameras have dramatically lowered the barriers to feature filmmaking," says Li Tian, a film and TV expert. "The boom in online video-sharing websites and microblogs give a platform to small-budget movies that lack funds for promotion."

There's more to going to the movies than blockbusters with special effects and Chinese historic epics, and viewers are beginning to appreciate smaller films that are more creative and interesting, says Li.

Of course, they have a long way to go. Lack of contemporary good stories is a major problem.

A famously successful, and excellent low-budget film was young director Ning Hao's black comedy "Crazy Stone," which raked in around US$3 million with a budget of only one-seventh of its box office take.

It's about a precious jade pendant unearthed in the outhouse of factory - and competition by the factory owner, bumbling thieves, gangsters and the owner's son to grab it.

The cast was made up of unknown actors.

Ning, who is just 35, says the secret is an appealing story line and the way it's told; famous stars and a famous director are not prerequisites for success.

Film critic Li says a successful, low-budget film should have "a remarkable strength ... It can be the originality of the plot, special and creative filmmaking style and a close connection with viewers."

But artistic and art-house films still face the problem of limited appeal since their messages are often based on the director's personal experience and ideas.

Crucial transition

Film observers say that small and moderate budget films will flourish in time and they say this is a crucial transition period for Chinese cinema.

"Small budget movies as well as micro movies made by grassroots and first-time directors can give veteran film makers new inspiration and more perspectives on story telling," says Shi Chuan, a professor from Shanghai University's school of Film & TV arts and technology.

Compared with many big-budget films and epics that have to include special effects, high action, big stars and sometimes fantasy and science fiction, small-budget films offer more space for flexibility and creativity.

"Movies exploring real human issues and people's current state of anxiety and confusion will become increasingly popular," says professor Shi. "Cinema needs diversity which can generate more creativity."

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