So, Stephen Chow, the martial-arts practitioner/actor/writer/director/producer best known outside Asia for two brilliant films, 2001’s Shaolin Soccer and 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle, hasn’t troubled western waters too much ever since. Take The Mermaid, the all-time highest-grossing movie in Chinese history barely got seen when it was released in the UK (where I live) and it didn’t fare any better in the USA.
What western distributors have against a proven moneyspinner I don’t know, but Chow’s previous film, Journey to the West, also the highest-grossing movie in Chinese history when it was released in 2013, suffered a similar fate.
But back to The Mermaid, a fun, fast and familiar piece of Chow excess laced with an eco-message about messing up the oceans. Chow gives us a funny little preamble, set in a circus run by hucksters who attempt to separate gullible punters from their money with a freak show consisting of obvious fakes. Their mermaid, for instance, is clearly a fat guy in what is obviously a mermaid costume. You can see his legs through the material. His pubic hair is thrusting out over the top of his “tail”.
This has nothing to do with what follows, an adventure focusing on Shan (Lin Yun), a real mermaid who has been sent by the endangered mer-community to thwart the attempts of Mega Baddie Liu (Deng Chao) to destroy the oceans by getting close to him and killing him. The mer-people know Liu will make a move on anything female and so have deployed their prettiest mer-lady, who’s disguised herself as a human by forcing herself into mermaid Spanx and splitting the end of her tail so it’ll fit into sneakers. As the honey in the trap she’ll do, by a factor of infinity to the n, but even so, the mer-folk are worried she won’t be hot enough – breasts too small, they worry?
They needn’t. The target is a playboy narcissist of the highest order and easy to hoodwink. What they hadn’t foreseen is that Shan will fall for the bad guy, and he for her, a complication that turns the honey trap into a genuine meet-cute and an opportunity into a dilemma – for Shan at least.
While we’re obviously going to like Shan – she’s beautiful, cute, funny, brave, a touch naive but clever – Chow’s trick in The Mermaid is to make us like Liu too. He’s a poor little rich boy who started out broke and has almost accidentally lucked his way into mega-wealth.
Chow’s other trick is to know where the boundaries of good taste are and then deliberately stomp all over them. A scene where Shan’s half-man/half-octopus mer-buddie has his tentacles barbecued. Another where there is a mass slaughter of mermaids, machetes all over the place. Or, at one point, the use of whale harpoons. Brutal.
And yet beneath it all beats the heart of Buster Keaton, with Lin Yun a neat Keaton stand-in, stonefaced, wide-eyed and with a who-me demeanour as one slapstick set piece after another plays out with surgical precision.
The comparison with the Marvel way of doing things is interesting. Marvel, for all the comedic input of a Thor or Tony Stark, are at bottom clash-of-civilisations movies. The Mermaid is too, kind of, or would be if Chow took it in that direction. Instead he’s inclined much more to the comedic, the spoof giving way to the serious only when the crunch humans-v-merfolk showdown finally has to be dealt with. It’s this major tonal shift that’s a struggle to take on board – what happened to the jokes?
Chow’s trademark cartoon style predominates, with a production design that’s vividly colourful and cinematography that is as if once-overed with chrome polish (some post-production trickery, undoubtedly). Deng Chao and Lin Yun are fantastically right as the leads, playing now tough, now tender, and as Chow switchbacks between the genres of action-thriller and romcom his two leads stay with him, even when he leaves his audience behind.
The Mermaid – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023