Film Review: Stephen Chow’s “The Mermaid”

Stephen Chow, the beloved Hong Kong auteur, and one of the industry’s reigning kings of cinematic comedy, now has a major jewel to add to his crown. His latest film, the manic ecological parable “The Mermaid,” is currently the highest grossing release in Chinese box office history.

However, one wouldn’t know that, judging from the distributor Sony’s initial U.S. release strategy, which was essentially to dump it in a handful of theaters, with no advance press to speak of. This was a far cry from the reception afforded the releases of Chow’s earlier films “Shaolin Soccer” and “Kung Fu Hustle,” which got actual advertising campaigns, complete with TV spots. The distributors behind those earlier films, wonder of wonders, seemed to actually care whether any U.S. audiences showed up for them. The contrast between this and Sony’s handling of “The Mermaid” tells us a great deal about the state of affairs regarding non-English language film releases in the current U.S. marketplace.

Fortunately, some eagle-eyed critics and flurries of social-media postings helped to counteract Sony’s stealth release strategy, with packed audiences for “The Mermaid”’s limited theaters, causing Sony to finally wake up and expand the film’s release. Because of this, “The Mermaid” is now on track to be Stephen Chow’s most successful US release, at least in terms of per-theater averages.

“The Mermaid” is simultaneously a throwback to the Hong Kong mo lei tau (nonsense comedy) movies with which Chow made his name in the ’80s and ’90s, and a prime example of the state of the art CGI-heavy mainland blockbusters which have become the main currency of today’s Chinese-language film market. Just like many of Chow’s fellow Hong Kong filmmakers and actors, commercial realities have dictated a shift from strictly localized productions to films that are a product of, and aimed at, the mainland China market. The ways these artists navigate this commercial, aesthetic, and cultural shift are often as fascinating as the films themselves.

Chow’s particular strategy in “The Mermaid” is as sly and stealthily subversive as it is deeply weird and often laugh out loud funny. Just as in his last film “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons,” Chow puts aside the triple threat writer-director-star status he has maintained throughout his career, remaining strictly behind the camera. However, Chow finds a spirited substitute in Deng Chao (himself an actor/director), who plays Liu Xuan, a loutish nouveau riche magnate whose method for getting whatever he wants or solving any problem is to throw loads of cash at it.

The main thing Liu has his eye on is Green Gulf, a sea life sanctuary he wants to take over as part of a land development venture. Officially, the sanctuary is supposed to be protected from schemes like this, but that turns out to be a minor problem easily fixed by Liu’s massive bank account. To completely clear the way for his redevelopment plan, Liu commissions the creation of a powerful sonar device meant to cause great harm to any sea creature in its vicinity when it’s activated.

Among the inhabitants of this threatened sanctuary are a colony of hybrid human/sea creatures – collectively referred to here as “mermaids,” though many differ from the traditional female creatures – who have been suffering greatly from the murderous sonar, and who fear being wiped out completely by humankind. The mermaid leader, a half-human/half-octopus named Brother Eight (Show Lo), conceives a plot to assassinate Liu and take back sovereignty over their home. He recruits their top beauty Shanshan (Jelly Lin) as a “honey trap” to seduce the notoriously womanizing Liu and lure him to his death.

However, Shanshan’s first assassination attempt fails, in one of the film’s most hilarious scenes, as the weapons she tries to use – such as pointy sea urchins – cause her attacks to become inadvertently self-inflicted, when Liu unknowingly, yet successfully, evades her maneuvers. What’s more – as could be predicted almost from the start – the two begin to fall for each other, Liu appreciating Shanshan’s sweet, genuine nature, and Shanshan seeing the actual human beneath Liu’s greedy, rapacious exterior. This turn of events, of course, threatens the goals of both opposing sides, setting the stage for a grand confrontation.

If anarchic hilarity is “The Mermaid”’s strongest suit, then tonal consistency is its weakest. This is probably the result of the film’s employment of nine (!) screenwriters, including Chow, who don’t seem to have been all on the same page as far as creating logical coherence. The film veers wildly from Looney Tunes slapstick, starry-eyed romantic montages, to the rather grim carnage of the denouement.

Yet somehow, it all manages to hang together, due to the sheer exuberance and go-for-broke quality of Chow’s directorial style, and to the winning performances of its two leads. Deng nails both the cartoonish caricature as well as the more warmly human aspects of his character, one that Chow might have played himself in the past.

As good as Deng is – as well as most of the supporting cast, including Kitty Zhang as Liu’s sometime lover/nemesis – “The Mermaid” truly belongs to Lin, who makes a sensational debut here, and is very much a star in the making, if not already one. Just 18 at the time of the shoot, Lin proves to be the total package, with an incredibly appealing, winsome beauty, as well as a skilled physical comedienne, game for all the outsize antics Chow has her perform.

The pro-ecology message of “The Mermaid” is hardly subtle; the film includes actual footage of environmental disasters, and its nature-hating villains are over-the-top evil. However, hidden beneath this theme is another that’s far more subversive and potentially politically dangerous. The story concerns a group of hybrid people living on an island off China’s coast, wishing to live in peace and harmony, threatened by evil mainland entities who wish to usurp their sovereignty and take away their freedom; indeed, their very lives. For those who have followed – or have directly been involved in – the recent struggles of Hong Kong people (which presumably includes a large portion of this film’s audience) to maintain their identity in the face of an increasingly authoritarian mainland Chinese government, the allegory inherent in “The Mermaid” should not be at all difficult to figure out.

“The Mermaid” recently screened at the New York Asian Film Festival, where Jelly Lin received its Rising Star Award. It is currently playing a NYC return engagement, in its original 3D version, at Metrograph. For more information, visit Metrograph’s website.