'Mermaid': Film Review

Mermaid Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Star Overseas
Stephen Chow doing what Stephen Chow does best.

Hong Kong comedy giant Stephen Chow steps back behind the camera for a sweet, comical and timely ecological fantasy.

Environmental irresponsibility and corporate greed are at the heart of the latest tirade, however delicate, by Hong Kong comedy legend Stephen Chow. Returning to the director’s chair three years after the less than pointed Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, Chow’s latest is more in line with the early work that made him a hit at home (King of Comedy) and earned him a cult following overseas (Kung Fu Hustle). With no time for allegory or parable, the fantastical Mermaid delivers its message without a shred of subtlety (and is unapologetic about it) but with considerable charm, wit and darkness to make up for it. After a record-breaking debut in China and Hong Kong, overseas markets that embraced Chow at his sweet and snarky best will do so again.

In a story that could have been ripped from many a headline — mythic fish-people excluded — a ruthless, profit-focused developer Liu (Deng Chao) becomes the target of a group of peaceful but angry mermaids living in the wreck of an oil tanker off the coast of Green Gulf when he buys the land nearby. Liu, of course, has big plans to reclaim the area and make billions of dollars on property but he has to clear the water of its marine life. For this he gets help from a business partner, Ruolan (Kitty Zhang), whose new, agonizing sonar technology was designed to drive away Green Gulf’s dolphin population. The mermaid community, led by Octopus (Taiwanese pop star Show Luo) plots to send Shan (newcomer Jelly Lin, who would have been Shu Qi 20 years ago) to seduce the mogul and then assassinate him. Naturally, the whole plan falls apart in the film’s other major story arc, in which the infiltrator falls in love with the target.

Fans of Chow’s brand of misanthropic nonsense can also expect more of the same, highlighted by a handful of memorable sequences, both visual and dialogue-based. That said, Chow’s traditional difficulty with female characters also continues: Kitty Zhang’s Ruolan wants to destroy the mermaids because, bottom line, she’s pissed that her boyfriend has dumped her. Women, right? His penchant for torturing them is alive and well, too, and his reliance on tried-and-true storytelling shows no signs of abating. To be fair, Chow still insists on going pitch-black from time to time: Octopus’ self-mutilating sushi-chef gag is as grotesque as it is hilarious; the mermaids are forced to live in grimy, polluted water with festering open sores; and the final open-water pursuit of Shan is like every gruesome Discovery special about whale poaching, or better yet, outtakes from the dolphin slaughter doc The Cove. Much of that darkness mitigates narrative predictability to a degree.

The opening salvo involves a tour group visiting a kitschy museum of exotic animals, setting the tone for the rest of the film perfectly with its painfully over-the-top faux exhibits, the apex of which is the fake merman who emerges from a greasy bathtub. Nonetheless, Mermaid is generally marked by gleeful irreverence and in-your-face ecological politics with an unchecked development chaser. And while the story is particularly timely in China and Hong Kong, both overwhelmed of late by environmental recklessness and landfill mania, the core ideas and concerns will easily translate for foreign audiences.

Chow and his army of writers (seriously, it took nine people to write this) get terrific support from a strong cast of regulars and newcomers who really sell the story, cheesy special effects aside. As Liu, Deng has the least to work with as the villain who finds love and redemption, but he runs with the narrative and handles Chow’s signature wordplay well when given the chance. The standouts, however, are Luo and Lin. Luo manages to balance fury with funny, effortlessly leading one of Chow’s requisite Greek chorus of village/restaurant/neighborhood observers. Lin’s is the kind of breakout performance by a young actress Chow is renowned for; he personifies the best supporting actress Oscar of Asia. Though we are often asked to laugh at her instead of with her, Lin’s unforced wholesomeness and innocence combined with her gameness lift the material above its station into something entirely new that Chow himself probably didn’t expect. Visual effects and 3D are suitably cheeseball and pedestrian, respectively — the former doing its part to propel the story and the latter adding, as usual, next to nothing.

Production companies: The Star Overseas Limited., China Film Co., Hehe (Shanghai) Film Corporation Limited,
Cast: Deng Chao, Jelly Lin, Show Luo, Kitty Zhang, Tsui Hark, Wen Zhang, Kris Wu
Director: Stephen Chow
Screenwriter: Stephen Chow, Kelvin Lee Si Zhen, Ho Miu Ki, Lu Zheng Yu, Fung Chih Chiang, Y. Y. Kong, Chang Hing Kai, Tsang Kan Cheung

Producer: Stephen Chow, Y.Y. Kong
Executive producer: Stephen Chow, La Peikang, Vivian Yang, Wang Chantian, Yang Zhen Hua, Cao Pu, Liu Yang, Wang Yike, Jay Wei, Cai Dongqing
Director of photography: Choi Sung-fai
Production designer: Bruce Yu
Costume designer: Lee Pik-kwan
Editor: Cheung Ka-fai, Cheng Man-to
Music: Raymond Wong, Wendyz Zheng
World sales: IM Global, The Star Overseas Limited

In Mandarin, Cantonese

Not rated, 94 minutes