Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid was unceremoniously ushered into a few dozen movie theaters in the U.S. with little promotion, signaling that while Sony Pictures may still be handling the comic filmmaker’s work, the honeymoon days of Kung Fu Hustle’s 2005 wide release in the U.S. have long since passed. It’s nonetheless strange that Sony would take so little care with The Mermaid. Not only did it recently become the biggest hit ever at the Chinese box office, it’s arguably Chow’s most accessible movie since Hustle. A relatively straightforward comic love story/environmental parable, it’s a sharper bit of whimsy than CJ7 and less weighed down with mythology than Journey To The West.
Deng Chao plays the part that probably would have been handled by Chow in years past: Liu Xuan, a wealthy and arrogant businessman who uses sonar technology to disrupt the sea life in a wildlife preserve he has purchased. Neither Xuan nor the rest of the world is aware that the wildlife populace also includes a race of merpeople (referred to in the movie’s subtitles generically as mermaids). Many of them are injured by the sonar, and the remaining mermaids take up residence in a waterlogged ship, plotting revenge out of sight—not unlike the Penguin and his circus henchmen in Batman Returns. The group sends mermaid Shan (Lin Yun) as a “honey trap” to capture Xuan’s affections and hopefully leave him vulnerable to be murdered by the merfolk. The assassination team is led by Octopus (Luo Show), so named because he has tentacles (much-abused later in the film) in place of what Scarlett Johansson’s character in Hail, Caesar! would call the “fish ass.”
Chow’s weirdest and wildest comedies have an anything-goes vibe, even when the filmmaking is well-controlled. The Mermaid, by contrast, marks a pretty clear path in its plotting after a slightly digressive opening: Shan will fail to kill Xuan right away, and threaten her people’s movement by developing actual feelings for the man she’s supposed to destroy. The fun of the movie comes from how Chow elaborates on this scenario. The scene where Shan infiltrates Xuan’s office and repeatedly fails to poison, bludgeon, or otherwise incapacitate her oblivious target, harming herself in the process, is a masterful slapstick sequence, with Chow repeatedly and cleverly keeping key information out of the frame, and springing obstacles into Shan’s way like traps. Lin Yun does exemplary work here, a winning comic heroine and a mugging special effect unto herself. That’s not the only comic highlight; another, smaller set piece hilariously milks the odd idea that when Xuan realizes what’s going on and reports his predicament to a pair of policemen, they don’t just not believe him, they have trouble understanding what, exactly, a mermaid is.
The romance stuff, so often a side concern in Chow’s bigger comedies, works well too. Yun and Chao make the most of their accelerated courtship, which the movie doesn’t try to dress up with profundity; their primary romantic montage has the deranged energy of two kids tiring themselves out (and, indeed, includes a shot of both would-be partners throwing up). They’re so charming together that the inevitable halting of their whirlwind courtship also stalls the movie. Chow is making a clear and worthwhile point about the lousiness of pollution in China (and in general), but it doesn’t always blend well with the charming and idiosyncratic Splash riff he has going for the film’s first half. The Mermaid’s protracted climax is grimmer than many of Chow’s other films, and the tonal switch, while not necessarily unusual for his work, isn’t a great fit here—especially when certain shots seem to exceed the film’s special effects capacity, caught between cartoony weirdness and just plain cheap-looking.
Still, Chow deserves credit for not endlessly remaking Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, and as his movies continue to branch out, these clashing tones may become even more pronounced—perhaps in more assured ways. Regardless of what he does next, hopefully The Mermaid (which has done strong business in its tiny U.S. release, leading to an expansion) will serve as a reminder to Sony or whatever other conglomerate that other parts of the world beyond China are eager to see what happens.