Stephen Chow’s hilarious The Mermaid toes the line between original and rehash, but ultimately comes out on top.
“The sonars are deadly. I crapped my pants.”
Legendary comic director Stephen Chow has often said how fairy tales tend to influence his work. From the underdog martial arts tale Kung Fu Hustle to his literal fairy tale adaptation of Journey to the West, it’s not hard to see where he’s coming from. In The Mermaid, he takes inspiration from another fairy tale. I don’t think I need to tell you which one.
Deng Chao plays Liu Xuan, a billionaire businessman who’s recently purchased an island off the coast of China, and wishes to drive the local fish away by setting off underwater sonar devices, which blast sound waves across the ocean, killing the majority of wildlife there. At a party, he comes across the beautiful Shan (Lin Yun), who flirts with him and gives him her number. Returning home, she shows her true self: she is in fact a mermaid, working to assassinate Xuan.
Led by an Octopus merman simply named Octopus (Show Luo), the surviving mermaids have taken shelter in a half-sunken ship on a secluded part of the island and wish to take revenge on the man who brought about the destruction of their people. However, as Shan and Xuan spend time together and begin to fall for another, and as Xuan’s softer, more human side emerges, he realises what he’s been doing. However, fellow investor Ruo-lan (Zhang Yuqi) and mad scientist (maybe? How do I not remember?) George (Ivan Kotik) are not happy with the change of heart.
One of the biggest concerns coming into the picture is that this could very well just be a simple retelling of The Little Mermaid, but with an assassination plot. And under a lesser writer-director, the idea could very well have been. Instead, the potentially shaky set-up scenes are given the Stephen Chow treatment, and are so entertaining that you ignore how potentially boring the main plot could be. Of course, this isn’t the case. The plot does more or less go the route you expected, but manages to throw in some good twists, a couple of fun villains and some action.
None of this is immediately evident during the setup to the plot, so we definitely are getting more than we initially thought. And this is typical Stephen Chow: he’s been doing this sort of thing for years now. Look at Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer or even Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. All of these are stories we’ve seen done to death (there are dozens of Journey to the West films alone and about three more in the making), but all of those films have managed to go beyond what we immediately expect. Chow is a master of setting us up and then pulling the rug from underneath us through story trickery, exaggerated facial expressions and cartoon physics.
With the exception of a few bigger pieces, Chow keeps the zaniness to a minimum. That’s not to say that it isn’t ever-present, but in this case his trademark lunacy is kept mostly for one-off visual gags and weird characters. And oh man are there some great ones to choose from, from Show Lo’s stoic octopus, to the unbelievably kick-ass grandma mermaid (whose IMDb I can’t seem to find), to the sleazy curator of the museum of exotic animals (Yang Neng). Chow applies his trademark stamp to all of them, and we’re treated to some great performances because of it.
If there is one downside, it’s that the villains are written as somewhat one-note. Luckily, they’re not in it that much as Chow smartly focuses on the budding romance between Shan and Xuan, and when the villains do show up they take the plot in another direction, which makes the movie all that much, so it’s hard to complain. If the bad guys were fleshed out any more, they might take away from the main story, so it’s probably for the better.
But none of that is really important in a Stephen Chow film. The real question is: how funny is it? The answer is easy. Very. There were plenty of times when I laughed out loud both out of surprise and just because of the genuine comic hijinks that were on screen. A friend told me he had caught this when it played at the cinema last year, and there were plenty of jokes he did not catch that the Chinese audience did simply because they were likely pop culture references. I caught it at home, so these moments definitely went over my head, but I found it plenty funny without those so it’s really a case of your mileage may vary. There’s a good chance at least some of these jokes will get you. There are so many it’s almost impossible not to find one.
To sum it up: The Mermaid is Stephen Chow doing what he does best, but even more of the usual polish he tends to display. The jokes are well-crafted, the visual effects are bad in a good way, and the overall tone is one of good humour and fun. Chow knows exactly what people want, and that’s probably why it’s currently the highest-earning Chinese film in history. He makes films entirely so his audience can have with them, and that’s what he’s doing here. The Mermaid is never going to be high cinema, but it’s an absolute whale of a time. No I am not apologising for that.
Verdict: Packed with jokes and great moments, The Mermaid avoids being too traditional and will leave you with a smile on your face.
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Rating’s System
Overall Entertainment: 8/10
Violence: More than I thought/10
Weapon of choice: A greatsword made from a fish spine
Cameos I noticed: Tsui Hark was in this briefly
What’s on the menu: Self-mutilated octopus. Plenty of chicken
The Mermaid (2016)
Also known as: 美人魚
Director: Stephen Chow
Writers: Stephen Chow, Kelvin Lee, Ho Miu-kei, Lu Zhengyu, Fung Chih-chiang, Ivy Kong, Chan Hing-ka, Tsang Kan-cheung. Holy shit that’s a lot of names
Chao Deng – Liu Xuan
Yun Lin – Shan
Yuqi Zhang – Li Ruolan
Show Lo – Octopus
Ivan Kotik – George
Yang Neng – Curator
Tsui Hark – Uncle Rich
Zhang Wen – Constable Mr. Mo
Kris Wu – Long Jianfei
Sheung-ching Lee – Constable Mr. Shi
Zhengyu Lu – Mr. Liao
Chi Ling Chiu – Mermaid Long
Mei’e Zhang – Mermaid
Rina Matsuoka – George’s Assistant
Barbie Liu – Mermaid
Zhen Zhen Xu – George’s Assistant
Bai-Ke – Museum Visitor
Lianshun Kong – Museum Visitor
Wilson Chin – Mermaid Fat
Tze Chung Lam – Technician
Jifeng Zheng – Cheng
Shu Zhen Fan – Mermaid Shitai
Pierre Bourdaud – The Auctioneer