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Director: Stephen Chow
Writers: Hing-Ka Chan, Stephen Chow
Stars: Chao Deng, Yun Lin, Show Luo
If you’ve heard anything about The Mermaid, you’ve probably heard it’s broken box office records in China and has become the most successful Chinese film in history. You may have also heard that it’s also very good. I’ll get right to the verdict: it is. Very good.
The story is as such: While billionaire playboy Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) holds a gala party to celebrate his latest venture, a terribly made up young women with stringy hair and terrible make-up crashes the party and thrusts a phone number at him, pleading with him to call her as body guards push her out of the building. He takes the slip of paper and moves on. The party marks the sale of the Green Gulf where Xuan’s nasty sonar devices have driven off, made sick, or killed most of the species living in the coastal area. But they have also detected something strange, a sound unlike anything ever recorded on Earth. You can guess what it is.
Before all this, a group of mer-people (and frenetic octo-man) have taken refuge in a derelict tanker on the side of a cliff and furious with the destruction to their habitat, plot to kill Xuan. As he is renowned for his many affairs with beautiful women, the mer-folk decide on Shan (Yun Lin), a lovely young mermaid who has learned to walk on her fin. She if given poison and told to seduce the selfish entrepreneur. After she gave him the phone number, she waits, and when he calls (for reasons that are not what she thinks), she manages to gain access to his offices. After a hilariously failed attempt on his life, they end up sharing a bit of time together on what incredibly becomes a date. And then love. And a foiled assassination.
If that all sounds ridiculous, it is, and gloriously so. Directed by Stephen Chow, the mastermind behind Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004), The Mermaid is another irreverent action comedy that can only be described as very, very funny. While the premise is outrageous, the execution is nearly flawless. The film is signature Chow, with bright colors, cartoonish action, exaggerated characters and a lovable buffoonery that is exceedingly infectious. The plot will be of little concern as the performances and superbly timed jokes work astonishingly well. There isn’t a missed mark in the entire movie.
Xuan (Chao) the playboy, is an over-the-top megalomaniac who is paper thin, and knows it. His hyper-kinetic, wild gesturing make him loud and obnoxious at the start, and Chao is sleazily delightful with his greasy slicked back hair and pencil-thin glued-on mustache. He has most people eating out of his hand and is so rich, women fall at his feet wherever he goes. He’s an instantly likable villain because we knows he’s not real, and therefore his redemption is all the more satisfying. He is surrounded by a legion of guards and entourage that placate his every wish, and provide a great audience to his escapades.
Show Luo plays Octopus, the leader of the hidden cove of mer-people bent on revenge and yet somehow always getting into an embarrassing situation, typically involving humans interacting (unknowingly) with his very large tentacles. You’d think that would be a one-joke gag, but you’d be wrong. Imagine an octopus-man in a pair of pants with the fly open. You’re picturing the result and trust me when I say it works. There is also a moment with a ceiling fan that is laugh-out-loud funny.
In fact, you may laugh out loud a lot. I loved a scene at a police station (hinted at in the trailer) when Xuan, who has just escaped the mer-people colony, tries to convince the on-duty cops what he’s just seen. While a sketch artist draws his versions of what ‘half man half fish’ means, Chao grow increasingly distressed. It’s that this joke can last as long as it does and get better as it goes is testament to Chow and his skill for pacing and direction. The film is loaded with moments like this.
But it’s the jewel that is Yun Lin that makes The Mermaid such a joy. A ravishing beauty, she is also a fantastic comedic actor. Chow has a very specific style of humor, laced with sexual innuendo and Lin plays into it with total sincerity. She has the burden of bearing the emotional weight of the more serious themes, but also convincing us of the physical comedy necessary for the role. She is wonder to watch.
To be sure, as this is a Chow film, not all of it is funny. There are moments of jarring violence and unexpected brutality that have come be hallmarks of his work. As such, the humor of the first two thirds of The Mermaid make a dramatic shift in the last act to . . . well, it mustn’t be spoiled but will surprise. To believe that you will be as invested in these characters as you are when the end comes is also a surprise.
Mermaid films are a tough sell. Ron Howard‘s Splash was a huge success, sold on the great chemistry of Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah. That movie was also a funny comedy, relying on the literal fish-out-of-water story. The Mermaid however, isn’t about that, and there are no jokes that make use of it. Instead, the laughs comes from the story and the characters within, and while some bits involving a betrayal are a little obvious, the way the humor is so effortlessly earned is truly why this merits such praise. A uniquely crafted and presented story, The Mermaid is a fun time at the movies.