Xu Zheng, director and co-star of China’s highest-grossing domestic comedy of all-time, , lost some style points back home when he rocked up to an audience with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra last week wearing an open-collared shirt and turquois pants.
The director was invited to Thailand to meet the PM after grossed $202 million at the Chinese box office in late 2012. Apart from a few, rather tame scenes suggesting the presence of prostitution in Thailand, the film portrays the country as a charming place of adventure and natural beauty. The success of has led to an influx of cash-carrying Chinese travelers to Thailand, which has a more tourism-dependent economy than any other Asian nation.
STORY: Chinese Hit Comedy ‘Lost in Thailand’ Generating Mixed Returns for Thai Economy
In photos widely shared in Chinese social media, Xu is shown wearing casual attire, with loosely rolled-up sleeves, while Prime Minister Yingluck stands smiling by his side in traditional Thai formal wear.
Xu Jingbo, head of the Japan bureau of the Asian News Agency, kicked off the social-media maelstrom in China with a series of Weibo posts criticizing the director.
"Xu Zheng, you made 1.2 billion yuan at the box office with , but you failed miserably when it came to basic social etiquette. I wonder what Yingluck Shinawatra will think of Chinese men now?" Xu wrote.
Xu Jingbo’s critique also exhibited some slightly curious gender politics: "Even if you are a famous director, when you meet with the head of a country, especially when it’s the female Thai Prime Minister, you should be a gentleman and show some respect by dressing up a bit," he went on.
Within hours, the post had received 15,000 comments and been retweeted 14,000 times. Most of the comments came from ’s legions of fans, who chimed in to defend the director.
“Director Xu was just wearing simple and comfortable clothes,” one fan commented. “There’s nothing wrong with him just being himself.”
PHOTOS: China Box Office: 10 Highest-Grossing Movies of All Time
The editor’s widely followed critique continued in further posts, however: “When Jackie Chan attended the CPPCC session in Beijing, he wore traditional Chinese dress," the journalist wrote, referencing the action star’s recent appearance at an official Communist Party legislative advisory body meeting. “Xu was just not representing himself. On such a formal occasion, he was representing all Chinese artists and Chinese men," he wrote.
"China is an old and civilized country; it’s essential to pay attention to details and etiquette. Where is the soft power we want? This is it! It’s not about how strong your GDP is," he continued, his later comments a reference to the government policy mantra about the need to increase China’s global influence via “soft power” and cultural cache.
Thailand, home to the world’s longest sitting monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, still maintains age-old customs of formality in all rituals and ceremonies associated with the Buddhist tradition (95 percent of all Thais identify as Buddhist), the royal family and matters of statecraft.
Yet Thais also are renown for their easygoing disposition toward foreign guests – the country is often called the “Land of Smiles,” after all. While the controversy over Xu’s casual dress continues to buzz in Chinese social media, the Thai media was silent on the issue, with no notable commentary trending on Thai-based social media.