If you’ve wondered just why Hollywood now so aggressively courts Chinese viewers, look no further than The Mermaid. In just two weeks of release, Stephen Chow’s fantastical comedy has already brought in $430 million in its home country, making it China's highest-grossing release ever. (It’s doing well here, too, having taken home in its first American weekend a little more than $1 million on a mere 35 screens.) But here's hoping that the studios don’t pay too much attention to the film itself, as there’s little here worth emulating.
A fish-out-of-water tale in the classical mold, the environmental fairytale stars Jelly Lin as a mermaid whose survival instinct has compelled her to walk upright and blend in with the land lubbers. Shanshan’s pod plans to use this physical anomaly (and her striking looks) to seduce the real-estate magnate who’s purchased the coastal area they secretly call home. Once she’s lured him back to their submerged lair, Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) is meant to sleep with the fishes.
But you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mermaids and men. Shanshan’s naive innocence first infuriates, then inspires her mark — in the movies, all it ever takes to hip an out-of-touch rich dude to the error of his ways is a beautiful young woman, and this trillionaire tycoon is no different. Neither is The Mermaid: You’ve already seen most of what Chow and his seven(!) co-screenwriters have crafted, and you've usually seen it with greater coherence and more impressive CGI. (And as with most 3D, The Mermaid’s added dimension is unobtrusive to the point of being superfluous.)
Your mileage may vary when it comes to Chow’s slapstick humor, which here centers on outsiders’ bafflement in the face of mer-powers. Still, one genuinely funny moment emerges: After Liu Xuan tells a police officer that he’d been kidnapped by a “half-person, half-fish,” the dunderheaded cop quickly sketches a figure with the left half of a human and the right half of a fish to confirm the creature in question. It’s a good sight gag, and Chow carries it out to Who’s on First? levels of confusion.
That broad comedy eventually gives way to heavy-handed speechifying and graphic mermaid-slaying, little of which actually makes sense. Moments after complaining that their only mermaid specimens are both dead, the corporate villainess sends an assault team to slaughter every last one of them. The mermaids make camp at a shipwrecked tanker nestled under a waterfall, its blue-green waters just murky enough to hide their presence to the naked eye — if not the bad guys’ bullets.
What follows is clearly meant to recall the brutality with which whales and dolphins are poached in waters near and far, but mostly it foregrounds the narrative incoherence. For all its aspirations toward movie magic with an activist bent, The Mermaid’s potential implications on the film industry are ultimately more noteworthy than the movie itself.