How big was The Mermaid? According to Box Office Mojo, the movie was China’s box office champion of 2016. Earning $527 Million, the movie grossed more than the #2 and #3 movies combined: Zootopia and (the surprise hit for China and absolutely nowhere else) Warcraft. It’s hard to pinpoint a single reason for The Mermaid‘s success. Surely it’s partly because the movie was directed by Stephen Chow, whose blend of action and vaudevillian humor have been reliable box-office draws for two decades now. (Kung Fu Hustle was the highest grossing film in Hong Kong history until 2011.) Partly it’s because the Chinese movie market is still expanding, and the huge numbers can be chalked up to simply more movie-goers. (The Mermaid‘s box office tally was surpassed this year by Wolf Warrior 2, which netted over $800 Million.) It was also released on the Chinese New Year. I don’t know much about China’s cinema viewing habits, but I imagine that it’s a great time to watch a relatively family friendly that has mermaids in it.
And yes, I did say “family friendly.” The MPAA rated this “R” state-side for violence, but personally I find it a stretch to find anything truly objectionable. There’s a scene where an octopus-based merman gets his tentacles chopped off to protect his cover, and it caused my wife to wince and turn away. But here’s the magic of movies: they’re obviously fake tentacles, the actor (Show Lo) is pulling the craziest Jerry Lewis faces, and the gag is that they’re grilling the tentacles for teppanyaki. The scene that caused her to turn away… was when an octopus tentacle was being bloodlessly put into a meat grinder. You get more brutal violence in Batman V. Superman, and it’s not played for laughs there.
I suppose there’s an intense scene toward the end, where the merpeople must fight for their lives and blood is shed in scenes mimicking the practices of animal cruelty shown in stock footage at the beginning of the movie. I would argue, though, that these scenes are PG-13 at most.
The title character is a mermaid named Shan, portrayed by Yun Lin (credited here as “Jelly Lin”). Her fin has been modified (i.e. slightly sliced down the middle) so she can waddle — or, more accurately, skateboard — among the humans. Her disguise consists of ugly yellow high-tops and a wrap-around skirt to hide the fish parts. Her mission: to seduce and assassinate Liu Xuan, an ambitious real estate developer. His company has deployed sonar buoys meant to drive away dolphins and thus open previously protected land for development. These same buoys, though, have unknowingly been killing off the merpeople who live in the same bay. Her plan, however, hits a snag when she falls in love … with the zesty, bold flavor of roasted chicken.
Also she falls in love with Liu Xuan. Who also falls in love with her. It’s Stephen Chow’s version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. “All my previous titles can be understood as fairy tales,” Chow once said in an interview with China Daily.
Yun Lin was discovered in a highly publicized country-wide talent search. The Mermaid is her first motion picture acting role. You’d be hard-pressed to tell, though: she’s comes off as a veteran comedic pro. With a few facial expression, she transforms easily from a brainless hayseed in bad make-up to an elegant, haunted soul. There’s also the stuff in between. My favorite moment comes from her carnival date with Liu Xuan. He challenges her to sing a song that he doesn’t know. She doesn’t really succeed: he does know the lyrics to the song she picks. But, in trying to defeat him vocally, Lin’s face goes through some crazy, cartoony facial contortions. Her eyes bulge out and her neck extends, turning her from a cute date in a crazy madwoman. You wonder if she hasn’t been part of Stephen Chow’s troupe for years.
As fun as the movie is, though, I can’t say that it ever really tops the pure comedy of the opening scene. The Mermaid begins with a completely unrelated scene that could double as a short movie. A small group of bored tourists enter a museum full of exotic wonders… which is not quite all that we advertise when the discover that the museum is a dude’s house, and all the wonders are pieces of junk he’s got lying around his house. Witness the incredible TYRANNOSAURUS… only it’s just a dried gecko with some back lighting. Or the mysterious “Batman”! Which is a skeleton in a cape with chicken wings for horns. It’s a collection of some of some of the goofiest bit actors in a Stephen Chow movie: a heavy-lidded skeptic who keeps wanting his money back, the slick-talking museum owner/scam artist who can’t be bothered to look up from his mahjong game, and one guy who can’t help but laugh loudly and obnoxiously at everything he sees. And the payoff… well, I won’t spoil it here, but we laughed so hard at it that we were still talking about it the next day as our favorite part of the entire movie.
Chow tries to match that energy in later scenes. There’s a dude with a bad combover flailing around in a malfunctioning jetpack. Or a long but increasingly absurd sequence where two officers are trying to figure out what a half-fish, half-man looks like. Or Shan’s assassination attempt, which approaches Naked Gun levels of silliness with all unlikely ways her attempts are foiled. But, man, nothing ever tops the belly laugh you get from that first scene.
The merpeople are portrayed by several distinct-looking actors who don’t quite fit the public perception of what a sleek, svelte mermaid should look like. Shan is gorgeous, of course, and Octopus does have leading man good looks. (Chow considered Show Lo for male lead. However, the role ultimately went to Chao Deng, who was huge star in China.) Every one else, though, looks rather shlubby. The chief assassin is played by an elderly woman with a friendly demeanor. She’s flanked by Chi ling Chiu, a man who wears a gentle but world weary face. (Kung Fu Hustle fans may remember him as the kung fu master posing as a tailor.) They’re very easy to relate to. Perhaps it’s because when you’re playing a mermaid, you have to show a lot of skin. And when you’re not Shan or Octopus, that skin isn’t all that flattering. None of them look like swimsuit models. They look like us.
Their resolve to murder is heinous, but you feel their pain with just a glance. They’re also the most redneck mermaids in the world… living in a burned-out abandoned ship and wearing cheap, flea market apparel or nappy dreadlocks. They also have a poison that you can recover from with a healthy dose of booze@. My headcanon is that a proper city like Atlantis exists in the world of The Mermaid, but this beer-swilling group of misfit’s got no use for them city slicker types.
If I had any real problem with the movie, it’s that the CGI special effects look extremely dated. For a movie made two years ago, the graphics look straight out of the late 90’s. However, that’s a common issue with most Hong Kong/Chinese movies these days, and at least with The Mermaid it’s less noticeable when the entire world is basically one giant live-action cartoon. Still, Stephen Chow is one of the world’s most profitable directors (the ninth top grossing Hollywood director, according to Forbes). Surely he could contract out a decent SFX firm in Vancouver, right?
The intro sequence promises an environmental fable, and there surely is a cautionary tale regarding China’s rapid industrial expansion and the drive to place profit over ecology. I have much respect for Chow, who introduces a theme of environmental stewardship that I don’t see much in other Chinese movies. Chow has also lost none of his power to make you laugh one moment and terrify you the next. I can say with certainty that when the last act rolled around. As bullets and harpoons started flying, I had no idea which of the main characters would make it out alive.
But, first and foremost, this is a very funny movie in the vein of Looney Tunes or the Three Stooges. A typical Chow movie provides more entertainment that almost all American comedies. I would bemoan the fact that Hollywood doesn’t really go in for the mad slapstick humor Chow excels in. Then I realized that Chow movies and, say, Old Dogs have far more in common than you may realize. Having that cultural barrier forgives a lot of cheeseball humor.
The Mermaid is currently available for streaming on Starz.