The Mermaid (Mei ren yu)
China (2016) Dir. Stephen Chow
They certainly like their CGI heavy cinema in China. In 2015, the highest grossing film of all time at the Chinese box office was the fantasy adventure Monster Hunt – that is until Stephen Chow returned to the fold with this socially conscious fairy tale, usurping it and then some.
Inspired loosely by Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, Chow’s tale revolves around obscenely rich property tycoon Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) who purchases Green Gulf, a marine sanctuary officially protected from land development. To circumvent this, Xuan hires a marine biologist to kill off all sea life with a powerful sonar radar, which proves so successful, ultra rich rival Ruolan (Kitty Zhang) seduces herself a piece of the action.
However neither were aware that a race of merpeople lived in Green Gulf, and many were wiped out or left sick by the sonar attacks, with the few survivors now dwelling inside a sunken ship. Led by the bellicose Octopus (Show Lo), they decide to set a honey trap, involving pretty mermaid Shan (Jelly Lin), who disguises herself as a human on land to seduce Xuan then kill him.
The last part is perhaps not quite Hans Christian Anderson but the general thrust of the story is pure fairy tale fantasy. However there is an underlying tone of trenchant criticism of the extremely wealthy and their “throw money at it” attitude toward life, specifically targeting the ruthlessness of property developers which surprisingly escaped censure.
An ecological entreaty is also present, albeit far less subtle than the above satire, which again is either Chow’s conscience taking a stand or further irony, coming from a country with a notoriously huge pollution issue. But if you want to attract people’s attention sometimes sugar coating it does work and this colourful and vibrant slice of bubblegum escapism proves.
Chow opens his film with his trademark offbeat humour set in a supposed Museum of World Exotic Animals, a collection of fraudulent attractions presented by a curator who continues a game of Mah-jong whilst acting as tour guide. His prize asset is a real live mermaid – after a Barbie doll with a mackerel tail is mocked – which one has to see to believe.
Thankfully the other mermaids and mermen are the real deal but dwindling in numbers after the sonar attack. Shan, with her adapted tail to fit into human shows, infiltrates Xuan’s pool party disguised as a dancer but she is thrown out by security, but not before she can leave her card with Xuan. Meanwhile Ruolan is throwing herself at Xuan who seems oddly resistant, causing her to mock his cheap taste in women like Shan. To spite Ruolan, Xuan calls Shan for a date.
When Xuan fails to arrive personally to collect Shan, she is tasked with carrying out the assassination leading to some prime Chow slapstick as it goes disastrously wrong. Largely executed through simple unenhanced physical dexterity, this is a brisk stream of superbly timed and choreographed Tom And Jerry style mishaps and backfires, proving to be one of the highlights of the film.
It doesn’t stop there as Xuan tries to by Shan off, growing frustrated with her refusal to take his money yet intrigued at what makes this odd girl tick. He takes her to eat at her favourite chicken stall which results in a chortle inducing operatic sing off and suddenly Xuan is in love!
Of course it doesn’t last long and while Ruolan is openly unimpressed and jealous, it is not her that instigates the rift, leading to another silly scene in which two policemen try to contain themselves as Xuan explains about being attacked by mermaids! Again, a simple gimmick free premise but proof that you don’t need to over decorate a cake for it to be tasty.
Up until this point, everything has been very family friendly and the humour largely on the right side of acceptable to show young children. But Chow has a serious issue he wishes to convey and often, one needs to shock the audience for that message to hit home and galvanise our feelings.
Thus, without spoiling anything, the third act gets dark and there is violence abound – nothing overt or graphic but upsetting enough within the context of this otherwise light-hearted film. It asks the question if money and the material worth of a man-made excrescence is more important than the nature being wilfully destroyed to accommodate it, and Chow uses this bold but cruel scenario to full provocative effect.
With jokes and sight gags coming thick and fast and a meaningful ode to the environment running beneath this unusual love affair, Chow has regained some of the momentum her lost after his successful one-two punch of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. Yet, as the man who among the first in China to embrace CGI technology in cinema the visuals in this film are disappointingly average.
Used as the bare minimum and they are fine but the merging of the green screen set pieces and backgrounds with the actors is the sloppiest seen in a big budget film, dating back to early 70’s chroma-key. The CGI fish extremities are also inconsistent – Octopus’s tentacles are convincing on their own but his full body appearance doesn’t blend so well.
So it is down to the energetic cast and quick fire script to keep us entertained and that they do. Deng Chao is wonderfully obsequious and smug as Xuan while Kitty Zhang has tremendous fun as the fearsome bitchy predator Ruolan. At just 18 when she auditioned for the role of Shan, Jelly Lin beat over 120,000 actresses and proved a top choice with this effervescent debut.
Despite the rare misfire with the CGI, The Mermaid might be a return to form as such for Stephen Chow although not his best work. Yet, as a perfectly enjoyable and fun packed way to while away 93 minutes, this is just the ticket.