A new Stephen Chow film is always a momentous event. And not just for the whole of Asia, but also for me. First off, Chow, alongside Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun-fat, was one of the major forces that got me into Hong Kong Cinema. I have been a huge fan of his work ever since I was six-years-old, when I first watched his action-comedy Fight Back to School II (1992). His egotistical attitude, flair for physical comedy and his verbal expertise had such an impact on me; I wholeheartedly credit him for attaining my sense of humour. And his best films, such as Love on Delivery (1994) and God of Cookery (1996), are usually the ones that he directs (or co-directs), so when I heard he would not be starring in his recent films, I was very reticent, but Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013) proved me wrong as his distinct comedic sensibility and compelling genre mixing direction were still intact. Again, he directs but does not star in his latest film, The Mermaid. Earning the status of being the highest-grossing film in China mere months after the local blockbuster success of Monster Hunt (2015), does it deserve its massive popularity?
Deng Chao stars as Liu Xuan, an egotistical billionaire playboy tycoon who purchases the Green Gulf, a wildlife reserve, for a sea reclamation project. Working with Ruolan (Zhang Yuqi), they acquire powerful sonar technology to get rid of all sea-life in the area. But little do they know, there is a populace of merpeople and many of them are either injured or have died from the use of the sonar. Now inhabiting an abandoned shipwreck in the Green Gulf, the merpeople, led by Octopus (Taiwanese pop star Show Luo) propose a plan to assassinate Liu Xuan. Exploiting the opportunity presented by Liu Xuan’s playboy persona, the merpeople recruit Shan (newcomer Jelly Lin Yun) and train her to socialize among humans to eventually meeting up with Liu Xuan. But little does she know when the two meet; the two would form a romantic relationship that will spell out the fate of the merpeople.
When I heard that Chow was making a film about mermaids, I thought it would be a twist on the romantic staple that is The Little Mermaid. But it turns out that it is more than that. Not only is it a ‘Stephen Chow comedy’ and a romance film, it is also an environmental message about the damage the world has suffered. And not being one for subtlety, Chow shows a minute-long montage of it at the beginning of the film, but fortunately, that is about as preachy as it gets. It is also notable that Chow throws away traditions of the mermaid genre to great effect. For example, Shan never grows legs when she ventures on land, so she ends up with a very goofy walk and sometimes uses a skateboard. Another example is that Shan is absolutely oblivious of how beautiful she is and uses her sex appeal (or lack thereof) like a siren to ill effect. It’s inventive touches like this that make the film stand out from earlier version of this classic tale.
But let’s get to the nitty-gritty. How is the comedy in the film? I am happy to tell you that the comedy is still there and it is thanks to Chow’s direction and the wonderful cast of newcomers (to Chow’s oeuvre) and regulars. Yun gives a star-making performance as the ridiculously lovable Shan, that is very reminiscent of actress Shu Qi as well as the lovable loser archetype that Chow would usually play on the likes of Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004) or even Zhang Yuqi’s performance in the Chow-produced/co-written Jump (2009). The chemistry between Yu and Deng is fine, but her physical comedic chops are so good, I literally choked at one point. There’s a scene where she is using her mermaid weapons to kill Liu Xuan and she fails miserably, with hilariously cruel results.
Speaking of hilarious cruelty, Show delivers an even better Stephen Chow impression than he did in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. It’s reminiscent of the deadpan Stephen Chow archetype seen in Fight Back to School (1991) and he has one of the best moments in the film where he pretends to be a hibachi chef. The treatment of his character would even make Park Chan-wook blush. Deng is great as Liu Xuan and he seems to be having a lot of fun getting into the playboy attitude. His character is also reminiscent of the egotistical archetype that director Chow would usually play. As for Zhang, she usually plays the eye candy in movies, even in her debut film, CJ7 (2008), but she showcased some comedic skills in Tsui Hark’s All About Women (2008). It was a surprise for me to see her here since she and Chow were on opposite sides of a lawsuit involving contractual obligations. But for her performance in The Mermaid, Zhang is the vamp incarnate. She literally owns the screen every time shows up, and it is shocking to see how far she’s come, especially when you compare her performance here to her genial appearance in Jump. Her character is as clichéd as it gets, but Zhang goes all the way with the material.
Hong Kong actor Tin Kai-man also had bad things to say about him in a past interview about him being cheap and he had not worked with him since Jump, almost eight years ago. In The Mermaid, he has a funny cameo as a museum visitor who cannot hold in his laughter. I do hope this is a beginning of past collaborators coming back to work with Chow again. Other cameos include acclaimed director Tsui Hark as Uncle Rich, a name that tells everything and show-stealing Zhang Wen, who played the lead in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. His cameo alongside Chow collaborator Lee Shing-cheung results in one of the funniest scenes in 2016 so far. The sheer absurdity of the story and plot is put into focus in this one scene and is all the more hilarious for it. Like the scene involving the assassination and the hibachi chef scene, Chow’s sense of humour tends to revolve around the cruel treatment of his characters and just when you sense how cruel the physical gags can get, you laugh even harder. All of the Chow hallmarks are present: Bruce Lee influences, cross-dressers, the use of a restaurant stool, Japanimation sense of timing, Looney Tunes sense of humour (characters literally take out props from nowhere) lovable losers rising up, egotistical people falling from grace, “uglified” female characters (at one point) and the use of classical Chinese music. The themes from Fist of Fury (1972) and the wuxia television series Legend of the Condor Heroes (1983) are used to great nostalgic effect while also conveying emotional conflict.
But there are some nagging problems in the story that distract more than amuse, like the need to appease the Mainland China censors. Foreigners in the film (consisting of Westerners and Japanese) are villains and are even portrayed as insane. Though that can be amusing at times (like a darkly amusing joke involving a selfie), it mostly comes off as xenophobic. It also affects the Stephen Chow archetypes that he is trying to achieve. Deng’s character was meant to be the egotistical savant suffering a fall from grace, as in King of Beggars (1992), God of Cookery, and Sixty Million Dollar Man (1995), but the hard-edged humour that usually goes along with it has dulled. The CGI is also surprisingly cheap – the effects in Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle, and CJ7 were much better – so it is hard to take the dramatic parts of the film seriously, particularly the climax.
But overall, The Mermaid is a fantastic comedy, an out-of-this-world romance, and important environmental message. It truly deserves its success and beats every other Chinese New Year movie hands down. The Little Mermaid (2017) remake has some big shoes to fill after this.