The Mermaid is a wonder of a film. As the latest colourful Stephen Chow film to jump off the screen, it’s done a lot to impress audiences in China with it quickly becoming the highest grossing film in Chinese cinema history (also being the first film to hit over CN¥3 billion). Elsewhere around the world, it received a minor theatrical release, barely hitting mainstream cinemas in Australia. However, in Western markets, it still made a solid enough impact helping the film to hit over the $500 million mark worldwide.
I mention this first of all because The Mermaid is a great film that helps prove that there is an audience for foreign language films. If you’re not a huge fan of foreign language films, then The Mermaid is definitely one that is worthwhile seeking out – and that mostly comes down to the always joyous direction that Stephen Chow takes this film. More on that later on, let’s discuss the plot.
The world’s oceans are in peril. Mankind encroaches even further into territories that they weren’t meant to inhabit as business tycoon, Liu Xuan (Chao Deng), installs sonar devices in the oceans to help further decimate sea life and conquer more boundaries. A group of mermaids (who have remained hidden from mankind until now) find themselves at risk of extinction because of the sonars which increasingly make them grow weaker with sickness. It’s here that leader, Octopus (Show Luo), sends young beauty Shan (Yun Lin) to assassinate Liu Xuan and end the sonars that stop them from being able to enter the ocean.
What sets The Mermaid apart from Chow’s previous films is its pure environmental agenda. With one of the most gloriously entertaining opening sequences of 2016, The Mermaid opens on a shonky museum tour where the group visiting are shown a dog painted like a tiger, and a moustached man dressed as a mermaid. Filmed in Chow’s trademark comedic style, the tour host sits at a mah-jong table playing a round while explaining why the dog is dressed like a tiger. From there the absurdity goes to wonderful levels with some great over the top sequences including a song and dance number which takes place over a pile of chicken carcasses.
Yes, The Mermaid isn’t perfect – the CGI is more than a little hokey and the sound design feels a little flat, especially given the bright joyous imagery on screen. But, as with most of Chow’s films, there is a huge level of heart that drives the story. Especially the bizarre romance the spawns between Liu Xuan and Shan. Shan’s a lead character who is innocent and naïve, but given her situation – the death of her species – she’s always relatable. Liu Xuan’s transformation from billionaire through to love interest also is believable given the sheer amount of charisma that he oozes.
The side characters are also a huge joy – in particular Shan’s uncle Octopus, who has one of the most amusing sequences in the film. Without spoiling this moment, it’s another one of Chow’s trademark sequences which blends extremely dark comedy with absurd comedy to perfection. As the terrible event progresses, Show Luo’s wonderfully expressive performance helps build the comedy to its explosive conclusion.
It’s these darkly comic moments that help make The Mermaid a great film with a message. At one point during the climax, Liu Xuan shouts out while stuck in a traffic jam, ‘where are all the police?’ addressing the troubles of how we can simply stand by while the devastation of the world’s oceans occurs around us. I’m not suggesting that its success in China will help encourage environmental change in China (or the rest of the world for that matter), but by humanising the damage to the world’s oceans, it could hopefully build awareness of the damage that humans have on an environment we often take for granted. Chow splices in real world footage of dolphins being slaughtered in Japan to further enforce the real world aspect of the story at play. This yearly traumatic event is echoed in the distressing climax.
Yet, even though these images are distressing, I would still highly recommend this film (and of course Chow’s earlier work Shaolin Soccer and Kung-Fu Hustle) for people of all ages. The slapstick fun within The Mermaid is a form of comedy that seems sorely lacking in modern cinema, but the Looney Tunes inspired violence mixed with entertaining set pieces make this a true joy to watch.
Director: Stephen Chow
Cast: Chao Deng, Yun Lin, Show Luo
Writers: Stephen Chow, Hing-Ka Chan, Chi Keung Fung, Miu-Kei Ho, Ivy Kong, Si-Cheun Lee, Zhengyu Lu, Kan-Cheung Tsang