MERMAID is the story of a dumb but not intentionally evil super-super-rich businessman playboy named Liu Xuan (Deng Chao, DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME), a sort of Pretty Decent Gatsby with lots of shiny suits, a John Waters mustache, whole teams of security guards, lackeys and sexy dancers kissing his ass at all times. He has a weakness for the ladies, giving the time of day to every female from his seductive business partner Ruolan (Zhang Yuqi, CJ7) to a youngster in a sloppy mermaid costume who gets suplexed by security after crashing his pool party to give him her phone number.
One thing he doesn’t know: the fake mermaid Shan (Lin Yun) is actually a real mermaid sent to assassinate him to avenge his sonar devices massacring and trapping a society of merpeople in the Green Gulf wildlife reserve that he recently purchased for billions of dollars. But they kinda fall for each other. It’s like THE LITTLE MERMAID if it took place in the modern day and Ariel was trying to kill Prince Eric.
It’s directed and co-written by Stephen Chow, but he’s not in it as an actor and it’s not a martial arts movie. It is, however, full of his kinetic Looney Tunes style slapstick action. Hopefully the people who have a problem with wire tricks and digital FX assists already saw SHAOLIN SOCCER and KUNG FU HUSTLE and know to stay far away from Chow. This is a movie with a skateboarding mermaid, an out of control jetpack, a half man/half octopus who’s often hanging upside down or crawling around on the ceiling, a mermaid matriarch who splashes water into animated shapes to tell stories. And of course some cartoon violence, including poisoned sea urchin throwing stars.
The rich are portrayed as a bunch of weirdos, preferring tacky animal print clothes and gold sunglasses and shit. Many of them are petty and mean to Liu Xuan for sometimes doing things for reasons other than to make money. The great director Tsui Hark (DOUBLE TEAM) has a funny cameo as his uncle. There’s a scene where Shan brings Liu Xuan to the carnival food cart where she works to try to share a beloved food with him. It’s a romantic notion in a picturesque outdoor place of fun but at first he can’t understand why he would eat some normal, simple food that regular humans (or mermaids disguised as them) can afford using regular money. He lives so high on the hog it never occurs to him that it could be fun to occasionally try stuff that you can do while standing next to or away from the hog.
Alot of the comedy in Hong Kong movies that I end up seeing doesn’t translate, or at least doesn’t appeal to my sense of humor, but this one gave me some good laughs. First of all, the reveal of how she stuffs her tail into shoes to pass herself off as human. And the scene where police don’t know that half man/half fish means human torso on fish tail, and sketch several other possibilities. Also the one where Octopus (singer Show Luo) tries to chop and cook his own tentacles in order to pass himself off as a regular leg-having guy holding an octopus. And the scene where Liu Xuan and Shan sing a duet together and SPOILER his mustache falls off because it’s been fake this whole time and then it’s gone for the rest of the movie. It’s some really inspired ridiculous concepts, and Chow knows how to sell them with his careful attention to the design and music and the many interesting deadpan faces populating the frame.
And I think he pulls off some tonal shifts too. The environmental message is simple but sincere. It asks business people to have consciences like human beings are supposed to and not fuck over the earth just ‘cuase it’s a way to add an extra billion or two onto the ol’ surplus billions pile. Of course, we already know from ON DEADLY GROUND that they’re not gonna do that on their own volition. That is why what we gotta do is send underage mermaids to fall in love with the top 1% rich people of the world. Operation Fish Pussy. I apologize.
The news broadcasts within the movie keep showing footage of the infamous dolphin butchering we know from that documentary THE COVE. Later there’s an attack on the mermaid people that clearly mirrors that footage, a traumatic scene in a light-hearted fantasy reminiscent of the raid on the animal hotel in BABE: PIG IN THE CITY.
It’s also sincere about the love story, because she’s sweet and bravely standing against what her people want her to do and he’s a likable doofus who’s standing up to his own people, and you want to see it work out for them. Except… I gotta say, I was pretty distracted by how young she looks. She looks like a kid. She was 18 when they filmed I believe, and he was 36 I believe. I don’t know if she’s supposed to be playing an adult or not (mermaids don’t seem to have school), but it’s weird that he doesn’t make sure.
There was a little bit of outrage in the critical community here because Stephen Chow is a beloved director and this is the most successful movie ever in China but it only got a small release here through the AMC theaters that regularly play Hong Kong films. I don’t know, man, this is a fun, crowd-pleasing movie but it’s also not in English and has some odd tonal shifts, I don’t blame them for not trying to get people who don’t see foreign movies to see it. And, selfishly, I appreciated seeing a movie I hadn’t seen any advertising for and knew nothing about other than Stephen Chow directed it, people said it was good and there would most likely be a literal or figurative mermaid somehow involved.
I really respect AMC for doing this because it’s how I saw KUNG FU KILLER and IP MAN 3 on the big screen and there are plenty of other ones I see posters for that I never otherwise heard of. With MERMAID they even played it with a 2D or 3D option. I went for 3D and although I’m a fan of the medium this is the first one I’d seen in quite some time where I was really glad I paid the extra couple of bucks. It’s very noticeably dimensional all throughout, with nicely designed sets with things in the foreground and distance, characters flying in and out of the screen, splashing water, everything you want to see.
Anyway, congratulations on this one China, and if you make a part 2 please consider the possibility of Steven Seagal as Octopus’s dad who does aikido with his tentacles and makes a speech about the environment at the end.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.