Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid has managed to gross over $3 million in the U.S. to date—pretty damn impressive, for a foreign-language title—despite having been dumped into theaters with zero advertising or promotion. From what I can gather, most of that $3 mil has come from viewers who don’t require subtitles. In New York, The Mermaid opened at the Empire 25, on a screen that’s devoted to Chinese movies and is frequented almost exclusively, according to a reliable source, by Chinese-American audiences (though the films are still subtitled, just in case). Word-of-mouth has clearly made its way over from China, where the film has grossed an astounding $500 million (breaking the country’s all-time domestic record), but without any ads—plus reviews that ran either late or not at all, because few advance screenings for critics were held—America at large may still be unaware that it even exists, much less that it’s still currently playing in dozens of theaters across the country.
If that’s the case, it’s a shame, because Stephen Chow is an entertainer for whom language barriers are all but irrelevant. His films as a director (he’s also a huge movie star back home, though he now seems to have retired from acting) are essentially live-action cartoons, with an emphasis on chaotic motion and a willful disregard for the laws of physics. There’s even concrete evidence of his crossover appeal: Kung Fu Hustle (2004), which he co-wrote and directed, currently ranks 11th on the list of top-grossing foreign-language films in the U.S., having pulled in nearly six times what The Mermaid has so far. My favorite scene in that film is every bit as comprehensible and hilarious even if you have no idea what’s being said—it’s almost a classic silent-comedy routine, except with a lot more sharp objects penetrating human flesh. Maybe the Three Stooges are a better analogue, though I find Chow’s approach to humorous suffering much more elegant. Take a look at this clip, which requires almost no context—all you need to know is that the woman in the curlers (Yuen Qiu) is a very unpopular landlady, and the guy with the mustache (Chow) would very much like to kill her, or at least wound her. It doesn’t quite go as planned:
To be honest, I’d forgotten that the high-speed chase sequence that ends the clip is part of this scene, though I’m glad I was able to include it. That’s an ideal Chow primer, from the ludicrous Roadrunner blur of both parties’ legs to the landlady’s Wile E. Coyote splat ’n’ slide on the billboard. Many fans would say that such aggressive absurdism is what he does best, and while I’m personally partial to real athleticism (Buster Keaton running at top speed is funnier to me than any computer-assisted dash could ever be), I can’t deny that having Chow lean into curves as if he were astride a motorcycle is inspired, or that the landlady looks fabulous sailing over the truck with one hand on her belly and the other casually resting behind her head, as if she were taking a nap in a comfortable hammock. The special effects aren’t particularly good—the actors look pasted onto the road, and the clouds of dust they kick up are unmistakably digital—but that’s part of the charm. It’s not meant to look realistic. It’s meant to be funny.
Still, my goal of selling Chow to the uninitiated, using this scene, is centered on the knife gags that precede the chase. These are a perfect example of an escalating bit, and since I’m not aware of any established terminology that lays out how this style of comedy works, I’m just going to invent some names, the way Christopher and Jonathan Nolan invented “the pledge,” “the turn” and “the prestige” for The Prestige. (No, those aren’t taken from the source novel, nor do they derive from any actual magicians’ lingo. Totally made up for the movie.) Ready to watch me kill the frog that is this terrific series of jokes? Here we go:
Ideally, the audience won’t be aware that you’re setting up a bit at this point—it appears to be a stand-alone gag, and works beautifully on its own. In this case, Chow throws a knife at the landlady from within the little alcove where he and his buddy (Lam Chi-chung) are hiding, but he aims poorly and the knife ricochets off of an overhang, flying back like a boomerang to embed itself in Chow’s left shoulder. Good joke, simple and clean; the execution is largely in the timing, especially Chow’s startled reaction.
Chow then suggests to Lam that he try to do better with one of the two knives he’s holding. Lam promptly throws a second knife directly into Chow’s right shoulder, even though Chow is sitting off to the side and isn’t remotely in the line of fire. Now, the audience knows that they’re witnessing a bit that’s likely to continue (since the third knife has already been seen), which means that it’s time for…
Since the expectation is now that either Lam or Chow will throw knife number three, with predictably calamitous results, the element of surprise necessary for comedy requires catching viewers off guard. This time, consequently, Lam manages to stab Chow before he throws the knife, when he throws his arm back for the wind-up. I think Chow-the-director screws this one up just slightly—the landlady being smacked in the head with just the knife’s handle would be funnier had we not already seen the blade enter Chow’s arm. Then again, maybe what had happened wouldn’t be clear had he staged it that way. Either way, we still get:
I have never not laughed at Lam pulling the third knife out of Chow’s arm and then instantly re-stabbing him when he yells “Don’t!” It’s not just that Lam puts the knife back, but that he does so a) reflexively, without thinking, and b) really hard. The bit has escalated from three different unintentional stabbings to one that’s on purpose and yet somehow still not at all malicious. That’s great comedy writing. And so is:
Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? The best part of the gag’s capper is that the crates and their contents are visible throughout the scene, but go completely unnoticed (or at least I didn’t notice them the first time). Chow even provides a nice fat close-up right at the outset, as Chow’s head rises from behind the stacked crates, with the snakes in plain sight. All three knives are accounted for, the bit appears to be over, and then out of nowhere comes a completely separate, utterly ridiculous nightmare. That’s when you know you’re in expert hands—when the fifth level of a routine utterly blindsides you.
As an added touch, Chow also includes the callback, when he sees the landlady gaining on him via her reflection in one of the knives that’s still sticking out of his body (which itself is arguably a riff on the rear-view mirror gag from Jurassic Park). Point being, there’s more gleeful invention in these three or so minutes than many Hollywood comedies produce in an hour and a half. Reviews suggest that The Mermaid isn’t quite on the same rarefied level, and Chow’s previous couple of films, CJ7 and Journey To The West, weren’t either. But the idea that he’s no longer being marketed to a wider audience still bums me out. Anyone who can pull off a bit that’s at once this lowbrow and this intricate deserves better.