Stephen Chow is in vintage form in the boundlessly inventive, impossibly weird genre hybrid, The Mermaid
The Mermaid Sony Pictures
Director: Stephen Chow
Screenplay: Stephen Chow, Kelvin Lee, Ho Miu-kei, Lu Zhengyu, Fung Chih-chiang, Ivy Kong, Chan Hing-ka and Tsang Kan-cheung
Starring: Jelly Lin, Chao Deng, Show Luo and Yuqi Zhang
Rated R / 1 hour, 34 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)
There's a scene in Stephen Chow's The Mermaid in which a man tries to explain the concept of a mermaid to a pair of inexplicably clueless police officers. Every time he clarifies his description, one cop draws it up in a rough sketch. And every time, the sketch - while technically in line with what has been described - really doesn't look anything like an actual mermaid. Each sketch somehow gets both closer to and farther from the mark.
Aside from being an immaculate slice of dry absurdist humor - each punchline pouncing on the last, the man's increasingly vexed exasperation bouncing perfectly off the cops' stone-faced uncooperativeness - this scene also exemplifies the difficulty in explaining a Stephen Chow movie to the uninitiated. I can tell you that this is an environmentalist satire nested inside a slapstick comedy of farcical accidents and misunderstandings. I can tell you it's a corporate espionage film that periodically transforms into a romantic musical-comedy. I can tell you it's a movie so playfully aware of its own mechanics that it would fit perfectly well on a double-bill with any vintage Zucker Bros. movie. I can tell you it's a meta fairy-tale that opens by sending up the very idea of fairy tales. I can tell you it has the visual logic of a Looney Tunes film and a bawdy sense of humor that enjoys wildly over-the-top phallic visual gags.
All of these descriptions are accurate, and yet I'm pretty sure the movie you're imagining in your head doesn't quite match the essence of The Mermaid. Unless, of course, you've seen Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer or the severely underappreciated CJ7, in which case you know exactly what I mean and you're probably absolutely delighted just to discover the existence of a new Stephen Chow movie. Sony Pictures certainly hasn't made that last part easy, burying the stateside release of a film that has been a monster, record-shattering hit in its native China and which has Chow's international appeal (and built-in arthouse audience) as a selling point. Despite that, the film has been given virtually no marketing or promotion of any kind. Which is a shame, because a movie this good and this unique deserves every pair of eyeballs it can get its glorious 94 minutes of lunacy in front of.
But enough about Sony's inexplicable (or nonexistent) release strategy. For those that did or will get a chance to see it, it's an opportunity to revel in the gifts of a singular talent. Even if you know his work, the results are always surprising - in large part because his filmmaking approach, particularly when it comes to the comedy, is to keep pushing the joke, keep building on it, keep adding extra layers to it, all without really derailing the pace of the story. It's action-comedy Jenga, and there are setpieces (including the police-station scene mentioned earlier) that grow so absurd that there gets to be a sort of tension in waiting to see how far the movie can take it.
The film focuses on callously greedy business magnate Liu Xuan (Chao Deng), whose development of sonar technology has wiped out the sea life in and around Green Gulf (a wildlife reserve that is one of Xuan's newest acquisitions), in the process largely killing off a once-robust community of merpeople. Those that remain live in secret in a wrecked ship along an abandoned cliffside. The survivors - mostly mermaids and mermen, but with a de-factor leader in Octopus (Show Luo), with his golden hair and hopelessly inept romantic charms - have a plan to save themselves. That plan involves the young and beautiful Shan (Jelly Lin) posing as a human (she's been undercover for months, slipping her fins into shoes, wearing floor-length skirts and taking very small steps in order to pull off the ruse), finding her way into Xuan's good graces, and assassinating him.
The time comes for the assassination to take place, and Chow turns it into a virtually endless series of blunders, near-misses and violent, cringe-worthy disasters. Without giving too much away, I'll say that Shan very nearly kills Xuan over and over again, without Xuan even realizing she's in the room. An unwitting series of happy accidents keeps saving his life. The self-contained setpiece is a masterful example of slapstick and comic timing.
Of course, the two finally do meet face to face, and of course she can't bring herself to kill him, because of course he's really a sweet guy underneath. He's struck by her innocence - he keeps trying to pay her to go away, assuming that her constant refusals are simply negotiation tactics before realizing that she genuinely doesn't care one bit about money. Their feelings blossom during an evening at the carnival, the sort of fun he initially scoffs at, only to react with childlike delight at every ride and attraction. Eventually the two break out into a love song.
Turns out Shan and her family of merpeople had the wrong target all along - the real villain is Xuan's much more ruthless business partner, Ruolan (Yuqi Zhang), a woman so intoxicating that one of the film's running jokes is her inexplicable inability to seduce the suddenly-distracted Xuan.
We've seen these types of narratives play out countless times before - the rich jerk who falls in love and learns the right lesson, the cutthroat corporate honchos vs. the exploited lower classes - and the movie knows that. Chow has always been comfortable working in those established templates, probably because he knows he can do so much more with them than almost anyone. His scenes always live on their own terms and by their own rules, and the imagination with which he choreographs even the most cursory of scenes is kind of awe-inspiring. With The Mermaid, his use of CGI is as cartoonishly elastic as we've come to expect, his action as splendid, his broad, manic tone as breathtakingly all-over-the-place as ever.
Chow doesn't appear on screen this time (in fact he hasn't in several years). His films have long benefited from his tremendous physical gifts, so it should be no surprise that he always gets the same qualities of the actors he directs, and here is no exception. Lin is a particularly strong find on her physical presence alone; she's tasked with carrying a lot of the physical comedy (especially when her character is on land). She's got this ability to be graceful and awkward at the same time - to put on a brave, cheerful face even when suffering complete humiliation and failure.
This is essential to what we often see from Chow's heroes - the characters from humble origins who show dignity and courage even in the face of overwhelming obstacle. Again, this is a common dynamic, but his heroes are uncommonly endearing - and deserve to be, for as often as they have to be the butt of the joke. On her work alone (not to mention Deng's equally important performance), The Mermaid would be worth a look. But it's not just that. Want a movie that defies description? Take this one: an environmentally friendly, slapstick fairy-tale crime epic - and even that description isn't the half of it. No environmentally friendly, slapstick fairy-tale crime epic will ever be anything like this one.