Genre: Fantasy, Comedy, Contemporary, Urban Fantasy
Rating: ★★★☆☆ || 3.5
CW: body horror, violence, blood
Every Sino of a certain age and background has fond memories of growing up with at least one Stephen Chow film. For me, it was Shaolin Soccer because I was (and remain) obsessed with Zhao Wei. For others, it’s Kung-Fu Hustle. Or God of Cookery. Whatever that film was, I feel like we can all agree that as a director, actor, and comedian, he is highly underrated outside of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, even when screencaps and gifs of his films are taken out of context for comedic effect, erasing his presence and his work from the laughter he produces.
I respect him a great deal as an artist and as a creator, and certainly talking about his films with my friends has been something of a constant among myself and my film buff Asian friends, but I feel like I’m the lone Sino who doesn’t absolutely unreservedly love Stephen Chow. His films have always fallen on the “so bad it’s good” scale for me, rather than the “side-achingly funny” or “deliberately kitschy” spectrum, and The Mermaid is really no different. When this released earlier in the year, my Weibo feed literally blew up with people crying over how good this film was. It is currently the most lucrative film to have hit the Chinese market, like, ever. So maybe my expectations were set pretty high.
But if casting an 18 year old (at the time) as the romantic lead opposite a 35 year old (at the time) isn’t squicky enough (a trap Chow falls into often: in Shaolin Soccer he, at 38, played the romantic interest of then 25 year old Zhao Wei, in Kung-fu Hustle at 41, he played the romantic interest of then 21 year old Eva Huang), some of the physical comedy, usually so present in Stephen Chow films, falls flat as well, though there’s enough of it that the film’s still funny. It’s an adaptation of the Anderson story done in typical Chow style but with a larger (and supremely unsubtle) message about environmentalism. And I don’t know, maybe it was that, but it felt so much more forced than usual, and Stephen Chow isn’t known for being subtle.
Perhaps because the issue of corporate malpractice and the role that corporations play in the destruction of the environment is one that is so fraught and nuanced and so easy to do poorly, the black and white mentality that usually is a highlight of a Stephen Chow film comes across as being extremely simplistic here, where the Evil Corporate Owner turns out to be a Good Guy with a Heart of Gold all along, only for a Bigger Bad to come along to be the Heartless Bitch Corporate Owner (one who is deliberately set up to be a Jezebel-esque figure in contrast to the Madonna of our protagonist, who is explicitly called innocent and pure multiple times). And the entire operation is stopped when One Man (single, individual), uses his Power for Good and puts a stop to it. But a) real life rarely pans out that way (but it’s a Stephen Chow film, so I’m not looking for realism) but b) this not only simplifies the culpability of corporate leaders and the way that green initiatives play themselves out in a capitalist arena, where the health of our Earth is levied as a feel-good ad campaign.
But because the stakes in this film are real as opposed to utterly, totally, almost completely fictional (nothing can beat the dramatic levity of Team Evil, and while gangs were and remain a huge problem in Sino communities, to the best of my knowledge none of them strutted around with hatchets the same way they did in Kung-fu Hustle), the whole film just felt so off to me. (Also, what is going on with Show Luo’s braids? Are they supposed to be cornrows?) And perhaps I’ve just gotten so tired of storylines where a man who is set up to be totally irredeemable, only to be redeemed through the transformative power of an innocent girl’s love while another woman, denied that love, turns out to be the True Evil. I’m just done with it.
That’s not to say that the film is totally irredeemable. It is funny. One particular scene, where Deng Chao’s character Liu Xuan avoids assassination via poisonous sea urchin through the power of dance, had me laughing so much I think I pulled a muscle. Lin Yun’s mincing steps (as she’s standing on her tail, you see, and not on legs) made for a cute physical marker of her difference that did not rely solely on the normal trappings of seashell bras and fish tails to denote fishiness. (Pun absolutely intended.) And the litany of cameos by people like Wen Zhang, Tsui Hark, and Tin Kai-man kept the plot lively.
The entire mood was as outrageous as ever, but never in a way that disrespected the ability of audiences to suspend their disbelief (my least favourite thing in any media form is a lack of commitment to concept, and the pulling back from really cool ideas with the sudden intrusion of “reality” ––it makes things feel so cheap and makes audiences feel so robbed––you can’t build something up for an hour and a half and then rip it all away without warning to say that TADA I AM SMARTER THAN YOU––and something I really respect Stephen Chow for is that commitment to concept).
If you like Stephen Chow films, you’ll like this film. If there’s anything about Stephen Chow, it’s consistency in tone and quality execution even while playing with radically different and wildly original ideas.