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The Mermaid

Theatrical Review

Sony Pictures; 94 minutes

Director: Stephen Chow

Written by on February 24, 2016 

Stephen Chow is the rightful successor to David Zucker and Mel Brooks. He doesn’t possess the same mainstream cachet, but the Chinese auteur has built a career on films that, at their best, work as story-driven slapstick. Chow’s films find the liminal space between madcap Looney Tunes cartoons and Eastern-indebted melodramas. As much an apostle of Douglas Sirk in his penchant for languid romance as a yuk-crazy prankster like Brooks, he knows how to mine the heart of relationships as often as he can find the natural (or unnatural) intersection of comedy and drama.

Chow’s latest, The Mermaid, is an anomaly in a few respects. Coming just months after the previous record-breaker in China, Monster Hunt, The Mermaid is now the highest-grossing film in the country’s history. It’s disappointing, then, that it trickled out with minimal fanfare into a few dozen specialty theaters in the U.S. Luckily, thanks to a selection of critical evangelists and avowed Chow fans, it led to the highest average per theater in Chow’s entire career.

But The Mermaid’s unique in the context of Chow’s career for reasons that have nothing to do with its meteoric financial success. Set in the money-hungry, modern-day real-estate world, The Mermaid has very little of Chow’s characteristic mystical kung-fu and, more curiously, an ecological commentary plastered to the forefront.

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After a guilt-ridden montage of sludge-smeared birds, smokestacks, and deforestation,  the story moves to Liu Xuan (Chao Deng), a billionaire real-estate developer who has banded together with an immoral business partner, Ruolan (Yuqi Zhang), for a reclamation project of an island called Green Gulf in order to build a massive theme park analogous to SeaWorld or Disney World.

The only problem is Xuan needs to clear out the surrounding sea for confusing reasons related to the project. Thus he’s developed a maniacal sonar device that has the power to obliterate any sea life that comes within its vicinity. This new device doesn’t sit well with the hidden inhabitants of the island, a coterie of the last remaining mermaids — themselves a group who have survived for hundreds of years despite being attacked by humans.

This is all the elaborate pre-text for an unlikely love story between Liu Xuan and Shan (Yun-Lin Jhuang), a mermaid tasked with seducing and assassinating Xuan. The plot for The Mermaid is, perhaps intentionally, a bit of a mess, but it’s thematically strong enough to support itself even as the audience may scratch their heads about how, exactly, some elements fit into the picture.

And yet, as cluttered as the story sounds on paper, Chow almost completely makes it work, poking fun at his byzantine mythology at every turn via numerous sight gags and bathroom-humor tangents that propel the plot forward, as well as investing genuine heart and emotion into the budding romance at this picture’s center.

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Xuan’s character begins as a caricature, an impoverished young man who came into wealth so quickly that he no longer has any sense of reality and is now prone to throwing money at any problem that has the gall to present itself. But within the insanity of his general behavior, and especially his emergent personality with Shan, Chow builds a familiar, nonetheless resonant character dynamic that meditates on the meaning of old money / new money and the things that were left behind when he became wealthy.

Shan, too, initially rings as simplistic — a woman who seemingly throws herself at Xuan at a party — but her character balances a number of other fantastical and humane aspects, namely a constant joke about hiding her identity as a mermaid. This leads to all kinds of entertaining gags, ranging from issues with a metal detector to the strange sight of her removing shoes and revealing CG fins.

But Shan’s recognizable in more relatable ways as a young woman who’s finally becoming her own person, apart from the needs of her people, and as one who finds perverse happiness in just living her life. Deng and Jhuang are natural comedic foils for each other, piling on back and forth in comic set pieces (e.g. a sing-off of a TV jingle from the 80s) and smoldering together in romantic scenes.

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Chow’s comedic sensibility works like a pinball machine, characters ricocheting off each other at top velocity to gain momentum for the next joke — but always with the knowledge that all these gags need to build to some larger sense of movement. Dramatic moments can stop mid-sentence for a bit of slapstick as often as previously farcical scenes can bend into moments of melancholy or sentimentalism. Chow’s sensibility is less genre-bending than tonally fluid, a continuum of jokes and mawkish romance coexisting.

But even as Chow’s style is so impressive from an aesthetic standpoint — a career-long rebuttal to the emptiness of pop culture regurgitators along the lines of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer — it’s not immune to falling apart. Much of Chow’s humor is broad and based on repetition (an equivalent to the classic Simpsons rake gag), but taken to the nth degree through dalliances into fantasy. Often, the riffs can be little more than a surface-level dick joke or an extended routine about the hilarity of being beaten up. But it’s hard to underestimate the sheer whimsy of a beat about a malfunctioning jetpack bouncing off the walls, or a recurring gag about Shan’s octopus uncle that includes some of the most disturbing scenes involving the animal since Oldboy.

The comedy can’t buffer the underwritten Ruolan, though, who is a composite of abrasive clichés about women in business and jealous lovers. Still, her stony demeanor does lend itself to comedy, and Zhang’s abrupt, quick-witted line delivery saves the character even as she’s pushed into unfortunate places by the plot.

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And The Mermaid suffers a little bit more in this respect than Chow’s other, recent films simply because of the subject matter’s heaviness. When telling a story about humanity’s impact, one requiring such a delicate touch, Chow’s top-heavy style feels particularly unwieldy.

In 3D,  the characters nearly represent a herky-jerky form of stop-motion animation. And often do the pronged legs and other mystical appendages distract in a world that’s otherwise so rooted in the real. Compared to Kung Fu Hustle, where it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility for a character to turn out to be a super-powered opera singer or guitar-wielding assassin, the world of The Mermaid is mostly compacted into real-life environments, making the transitions into the mermaid world jarring.

But while the story doesn’t always hold together, it remains moving. In particular, a coda after the ending manages to have its cake and eat it by invoking the film’s environmental message and bringing the relationship at its center full circle. Here’s a work that’s a stirring reminder of his singular talents as a comic director, and, at the very least, an argument that Chow’s film deserved a bigger release.

The Mermaid is now in theaters.


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