I already reviewed one of this year’s big Chinese New Years films, now I’m going to cover an even bigger one: The Mermaid. This Stephen Chow directed movie is currently the highest grossing Chinese film in China of all time, and it reached that milestone in three weeks.
I acknowledge that Stephen Chow has good intentions. His movies often tackle worthy topics like poverty and discrimination, but his comedic approach is crass. He also has a tendency to undercut his own message, and The Mermaid is a great example.
The Mermaid opens with a montage of pollution pouring into rivers, rainforest being cleared, and smoke being discouraged from stacks, all of which is a subtle clue what the message of the movie will be. Then there’s a painfully long scene where a mob of unattractive people (including a woman played by a large man for no reason other than Stephen Chow thinks it’s funny for a man to wear a dress) are given a tour of a museum of “extraordinary animals,” but the exhibits are all rip-offs. Finally the owner promises everyone he has mermaid in a bathtub, but it turns out to the owner himself in a wig, bikini top, and an unconvincing fish dress. I have no idea why this scene is in the movie at all, unless it’s to introduce Chinese people to the concept of mermaids.
Then there’s another painfully long scene about an auction for a piece of land called “Green Gulf,” and the party the winner of the auction, Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) holds for all his rich friends. The point of the party scene seems to be a bunch of cameos, because I recognized producer/director Tsui Hark there. Liu’s rich friends all think Liu wasted his money (though they all bid too) because the ocean around the land is a wildlife refuge, but in fact Liu has secretly used sonic devices to drive all the wildlife away. He’s going to develop the land, and his ex-girlfriend/fellow tycoon Ruolan (Zhang Yuqi) convinces him to partner on the project.
Also at the party is woman named Shan (Lin Yun), who is desperate to meet Liu. Liu thinks she’s a prostitute and sends her away with a promise to call her later.
Shan, we soon find out, is actually a mermaid. A whole clan of mermaids are trapped in a wrecked freighter under a waterfall in Green Gulf because the sonic devices burn them if they’re in open water. Somehow the mermaids figured out who was responsible for the devices and sent Shan (her tail mutilated to pass as feet so long as she wears large shoes) on a mission to lure Liu to the only house on Green Gulf so they can murder him. The timeline here doesn’t work (Shan must have been sent on her mission before Liu even won the auction), nor is it clear why the mermaids are trapped in Green Gulf if Shan can go back and forth at will. Can’t she just steal a boat and float everyone out?
Anyway, Liu does call Shan, but he wants to meet at his business headquarters. The most militant of the mermaids, Octopus (Show Luo, who inexplicably has the bottom half of an octopus instead of a fish), outfits Shan with a poison that can be counter-acted with alcohol and some sea urchins. I hope you’re expecting wackiness, because that’s what happens. The joke is that Shan keeps poisoning the wrong people and has to make them drink alcohol, and then she keeps accidentally keeps getting hit in the face with various objects, including the urchins.
However, Shan isn’t really a murderer, so she ends up taking a liking to Liu. Why is a little hard to tell, because Liu is a boorish, selfish person, but I guess the plot can’t advance unless she falls in love with him. Meanwhile Liu starts to fall in love with Shan, mostly because he perceives her as not being interested in his money. I guess that’s true, but really, the original reason she was not interested in his money was because she was trying to murder him!
Their courtship goes on for a while, and the mermaids find out Shan isn’t trying to kill Liu anymore. Octopus infiltrates one of their dates by disguising himself as a sushi chef and there’s a long, hard-to-watch scene where he prepares his own tentacles as sashimi to keep up the illusion. And again, if Octopus can leave Green Gulf, why can’t all the other mermaids?
Finally Liu finds out that Shan is a mermaid and that the other mermaids exist, so he vows to release them. Actually, first there’s a weird scene where Liu exposes himself to the sonic device, apparently to see for himself if it hurts. Was he not willing to take Shan’s word for it, even after she showed him a bunch of burn victim mermaid children?
But when Liu tries to have the machines turned off he finds out that Ruolan has basically hired all his staff out from under him, and in fact already suspected there were mermaids at Green Gulf. Now that Liu has tipped his hand that the mermaids are real, Ruolan heads to Green Gulf with a small fleet of ships crewed by a crazed (French?) cryptozoologist, whale harpooners, and dolphin slaughters. However, the movie makes it a point that Ruolan is driven more by jealousy of Shan’s relationship with Liu than any profit motive. Women, amiright?
Ruolan’s people arrive at the freighter and just start slaughtering the mermaids in scenes inspired by the Taiji dolphin hunt (as seen in the documentary The Cove). A few of the mermaids manage to escape (somewhere along the way the sonic devices were turned off), including Shan. Ruolan and some of the boats chase Shan to a beach, where Ruolan is about to kill the injured Shan with a rocket launcher — and suddenly all her employees turn on her and she’s arrested. Keep in mind, these are the exact same employees who just minutes earlier were literally chopping equally sentient mermaids to pieces. They’re fine, enthusiastic even, when it comes to killing mermaids they don’t know, but somehow a woman killing a mermaid out of jealousy is a bridge too far. Liu then shows up and throws the injured Shan back into the water. The movie ends with a final scene showing that Liu gave all his wealth to conservation causes and lives with Shan.
Yeah, the conservation message of this film is so simplistic it basically comes down to “don’t pollute the ocean, because there might be sea life you would like to have sex with.” That might sell in Japan, but it’s not very effective on the whole. Add in the pervasive misogyny, a lot of CGI that’s only okay, and not enough funny set pieces, and you have a movie that I found not very entertaining at all. I’m frankly perplexed why this movie broke every record in China.