By Xinhua writers Wang Xiaopeng, Bai Ying and Xu Xiaoqing
BEIJING, Feb. 2 (Xinhua) -- Out-earning their high-budget domestic competition and even rivaling Hollywood blockbusters, the box office success of low-budget Chinese comedies is no laughing matter.
"Bring Happiness Home," a domestic comedy that hit theaters on Jan. 15, had raked in 130 million yuan (20.9 million U.S. dollars) as of Jan. 27, a box office performance worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.
The film's success is tracking a trend started by the low-budget comedy "Lost in Thailand," which debuted on Dec. 12. The gut-buster took in an unprecedented 1.2 billion yuan in less than a month, out-earning "Avatar" and "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" to become the highest-grossing movie ever shown in Chinese theaters.
"Works that capture the fun side of modern life have been the highlights of the domestic film market since the primetime Lunar New Year film season started in late November," Zhang Yiwu, a professor at Peking University, said.
"Lost in Thailand" follows the adventures of two rival Chinese businessmen and a simple-minded pancake maker in Thailand, while "Bring Happiness Home" is the story of a girl from a wealthy family and her life with her dog.
"The market share of big-budget films, epics in particular, has gradually been taken away by relatively low-budget works," Zhang said, adding that moviegoers are moving away from films featuring elaborate settings and visual experiences, like renowned Chinese director Zhang Yimou's "Hero" (2002).
The trend is evident, as director Feng Xiaogang's blockbuster "Back to 1942" took in just 370 million yuan after its November premier.
The film about a tragic drought that claimed about 3 million lives in central China's Henan Province in 1942 cost about 210 million yuan to make -- a stark contrast to "Lost in Thailand," which cost about 30 million yuan.
The epic's disappointing ticket revenue surprised many observers, as Feng has been one of China's most successful commercial filmmakers. His 1997 film "Jia Fang Yi Fang," or "The Dream Factory," was the first film produced especially for the Lunar New Year film season and grossed 33 million yuan that year.
"Low-budget comedies win large audiences because they are closer to real life and appeal to a wider audience, especially young people," Zhang said.
Meanwhile, it's worth noting the creative tricks these films are using to attract audiences, the professor added. The actors in "Bring Happiness Home" are the hosts of a popular entertainment show produced by Hunan TV, based in Changsha, capital city of central China's Hunan Province.
"The market potential for films that include elements from popular TV shows will be great," Zhang said.
Meanwhile, some observers and directors believe Chinese moviegoers are growing more and more diversified, perhaps contributing to the popularity of comedies with wide appeal.
Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai told Xinhua in a recent interview that it was hard to appeal to every moviegoer, as everyone has their own tastes.
His most recent film, "The Grandmaster," a kung fu film that debuted across China on Jan. 8, grossed nearly 30 million yuan on its opening day in China and has continued to enjoy steady ticket sales.
China's box office sales hit 17.07 billion yuan in 2012, surging 30.18 percent year on year and making the country the world's second-largest film market.
Though films like "Lost in Thailand" have performed a feat at box office, domestic films generally remain unable to rival their foreign counterparts. Ticket sales for imported movies accounted for 51.54 percent of gross ticket revenue last year, but 893 Chinese domestic films were shown in theaters, compared to only about 50 imported films, including 34 Hollywood blockbusters.
China's film industry is still far from other film powers, and there is plenty of room for improvement in the diversity and variety of Chinese movies, Tong Gang, head of the film bureau of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, said at a press briefing in January.