Director: Stephen Chow
Stars: Lin Yun, Deng Chao
4 (out of 5) Globes
If you’re an American, there’s a good chance you haven’t even heard of the second highest grossing new movie of 2016. You almost certainly have zero idea there’s a blockbuster that’s bagged nearly half a billion dollars in two weekends — just a few inches away from “Deadpool”’s haul. And yet this secret movie might even be playing at a theater near you. This weekend Sony quietly — just shy of silently — slipped into Stateside theaters “The Mermaid,” the latest CGI-heavy eyesore from Stephen Chow. In his native China, Chow is a mega-duper-superstar; in America he’s more a cult figure, but one who can still command the box office, thanks to “Shaolin Soccer” and “Kung Fu Hustle,” the latter the highest grossing foreign language film released here in 2005.
And yet, as rogerebert.com’s Simon Abrams dutifully reported, “The Mermaid” was so undervalued some Sony reps hadn’t even heard of it. The one that had simply felt no one apart from East Asian transplants may want to see it. This weekend, with no serious advertising and little-to-no reviews, Chow’s film scared up $1 million from 35 theaters — pretty impressive for a film spirited into theaters, but barely a blip in its worldwide take.
The doubting Sony rep sort of, in a way, kind of, not really had a point: “The Mermaid” is pretty weird. It doesn’t have the immediate hook of “Kung Fu Hustle,” which at least had kung fu. It isn’t even sellable a la Chow’s 2008 dramatic fantasy “CJ7,” which boasted a super adorable alien creature a la “E.T.” “The Mermaid” isn’t so easily synopsized. Here, we have a twist on “Splash” but with machine guns, jetpacks and an octopus dude making sashimi with his own tentacles. It’s a romantic comedy melded with an eco-message melded with a sometime action film that’s also, once or twice, a musical, and with subtitles. For American audiences so used to endless comic book movies they can’t even bother with an old school biopic about Jesse Owens released in the middle of Black History Month, it’s a tough sell.
To make matters perhaps worse, Chow isn’t even in it. He’s all but given up acting to concentrate solely on filmmaking. (“CJ7” presently stands as his swan song onscreen turn.) If he’s not physically in “The Mermaid,” his presence is still unmistakably felt. He’s very much the type of director, like Wes Anderson or Martin Scorsese, whose personality comes through in his films’ every pore. In his case his films lavish viewers with broad, bizarre comedy and intentionally fake, unfailingly silly CGI. He makes live-action Looney Tunes movies, where the human body is there to be stretched and beaten into inhuman shapes — to bounce around the frames freed of the boring constraints of dull reality.
His effects-heavy mien comes to bear on a rom-com plot. Shan (Lin Yun) is a young mermaid tasked with seducing and assassinating Lin Xuan (Deng Chao), a tycoon with a pencil thin John Waters ’stache who’s purchased a strip of seaside land and tried to wipe out its aquatic population, including a sizable human-fish enclave. Xuan is eminently hissable, as Chow spends much of the film sticking it to China’s nouveau riche. But once Xuan meets Shan, he finds someone who understands his loneliness and boredom with his fellow richies. Shan feels the same way, and soon she can’t bring herself to do the deed.
Chow sincerely cares about their budding love, but this isn’t the type of film whose tonal shifts are a problem. The romance never ruins the comedy, and Chow never lets things get too earthbound. It’s an unfailingly plastic world where everyone’s a caricature, even our moony-eyed leads, and every scene is lousy with jokes. Chow can never pass up a gag, be they blue (there’s a pretty good tentacle peen bit) or effects-heavy (the super-serious octopus guy is never not funny). In a film where the real and the digital are always blurred, the best scene is simple: a segment involving a police caricaturist, who apparently has never heard of a mermaid and winds up drawing one insane human-fish hybrid after another.
Only the finale falters, which is odd given that big closers are one thing Chow does better than most. Evil human greed-monsters eventually square off against the sea beasts, but apart from one old lady with a whale-sized tale, it never comes near the jaw-dropping invention of the ends of “Kung Fu Hustle” or Chow’s last film, the terrific “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons.” There’s so much good stuff crammed into “The Mermaid” that that’s a minor carp. No one makes movies quite like Chow, and the mega-popularity of his films — at least in everywhere but America — is a rare case where a movie Hoovering up moviegoers’ cash money is entirely earned. Give it some of yours, if you can.