It’s downright shocking how little of an impact The Mermaid is making in American theaters. Disregarding the fact that director Stephen Chow has two legitimate cult classics under his belt, Kung Fu Hustle & Shaolin Soccer, the film is also, no big deal, the single highest grossing film Chinese theaters of all time. It also doesn’t hurt that the film is a bizarre, hilarious, wonderfully idiosyncratic live action cartoon that might stand as the director’s most satisfying work to date (though I’ve heard great things about Journey to the West & haven’t seen it yet). In a better world The Mermaid would be making waves in American theaters at the very least out of cultural curiosity. In the world we live in it’s a difficult film to track down (opening to a beyond-depressing number of 35 theaters across the country), suffering a dismally small distribution for a remarkably silly film that truly deserves much, much better.
I’ll admit that for the first ten minutes or so of The Mermaid I had a somewhat awkward time adjusting to its comedic vibes. A trip through a tourist trap “museum” of “exotic animals” (think of Uncle Stan’s bullshit gift shop on Gravity Falls), a post-auction business meeting involving a malfunctioning jetpack, and a billionaire playboy’s rap video-opulence pool party all are enjoyably silly in a minor way, but also a little awkward from the outside looking in. It isn’t until the titular mermaid hijacks the film’s narrative that the weirdness opens up in a beautifully satisfying way. The mermaid of The Mermaid‘s moniker not only steals the show with her effortlessly charming, singing, dancing, flying, skateboarding ways, she also brings out the best (and worst) in all the characters that surround her. What at first promises to be a dull male lead in a billionaire playboy pollution junkie ends up being a gutbusting buffoon & a worthy player in the mermaid’s literal fish out of water romance once she brings him to life. The film might need to get kickstarted before it wins you over, but once it gets rolling there’s a relentlessly bizarre, cartoonish sense of humor to it that’s genuinely eager to please in an endearing way.
In The Mermaid‘s mythology, humans & merpeople are both evolutionary descendants of apes. Merpeople just happen to descend from apes who lived in water, having no use for their legs & forming fish tails in their stead. Merpeople traditionally choose to avoid humans due to their historical tendency to hunt & maim their seafaring counterparts, but their populations are disrupted & effectively destroyed by a grand “reclamation” project that makes it no longer possible for the merpeople to live in reclusive peace. Because the heartless business man responsible for the destructive reclamation project is known in the tabloids to be a notorious “pervert”, the merpeople decide to send one of their own to seduce & assassinate him in cold blood. Things inevitably go awry when the mermaid falls in love with the business monster who has ruthlessly maimed her people for profits & brings out a better person from within his damaged soul. The question is whether she’s willing to betray her people in the name of true love or whether the business prick will change his heart in time to reverse the damage he’s done to the mermaid’s natural environment.
At heart, The Mermaid is a very basic tale of “evil” humans learning that making money isn’t necessarily more worthwhile than simple universal needs like clean, unpolluted water & air. What’s fascinating is the way that director Steven Chow tells this story through a kaleidoscope of different cinematic genres. Parts of the film feel like an over-earnest romcom. Parts could pass as a heartbreaking drama about environmental destruction, complete with real life images of very real big business pollution atrocities. Parts are a straight-up spoof of the 60s super-spy genre. The whole thing is bizarrely subverted & repurposed through Chow’s hyper-specific & increasingly focused comedic lens that feels like a melting pot of aesthetics that range from Tim & Eric to Looney Tunes to ZAZ-style genre parody. Chow is becoming a master of his own aesthetic, a sort of goofball auteur. At different times throughout The Mermaid, I felt sincere romance, I laughed until I was physically sore, and I sat in abject terror as the movie took a nastily violent turn in his portrayal of just how “evil” humanity can be. Like most parody artists (or at least most of the ones who are good at what they do) Chow has an innate sense of how genre tropes work & how they can be repurposed for varying effects.
It’s not at all surprising that The Mermaid is performing so well in foreign markets. The film requires a leap of faith in its opening minutes, but once you get into its cartoonish, almost psychedelic groove it’s greatly rewarding. What is surprising is that its commercial success isn’t translating well to American theaters (not that Sony’s distribution gave it much of a chance). This isn’t a bleak foreign film about the ravages of war & the emotional turmoil of the economically downtrodden (at least not the whole film works that way). It’s a sublimely silly, largely physical, slapstick comedic fantasy with a charming romance & a unique visual palette (one that puts its cheap CGI to profoundly effective & deeply silly use) at its core. It should be a commercial hit. If you have the chance to catch it in its limited domestic run, it might be worth a gamble of a ticket price. You’re likely to find something about it that’s worthwhile, since Chow covers so much ground here & the film is, at heart, a shameless crowdpleaser.
Side note: Part of the reason it might’ve been difficult to get on The Mermaid‘s wavelength in its opening minutes is that the version I saw was dubbed into Cantonese & then subtitled in English. The dissonance of this out of sync presentation was at first a little disorienting, but that awkwardness did fade a great deal in time. I do believe the opening minutes are the film’s weakest stretch, but the awkward effect of that double translation should probably still be noted & further points to just how mishandle this film’s distribution truly was.