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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Mermaid (Mei ren yu) movie review: the biggest movie on the planet you haven’t heard of

The Mermaid yellow light

A wacky fantasy lark, half screwball comedy, half Looney Tunes. Chinese audiences have thrown half a billion dollars at it. Prepare for Hollywood imitators.
I’m “biast” (pro): have enjoyed Stephen Chow’s other movies

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

What are the biggest movies on the planet right now? If you said 1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens and 2) Deadpool, you’d be correct. But you may have trouble guessing No 3, because it has barely made a blip in North America or the U.K. The Mermaid has, however, just passed the half-a-billion (in U.S. dollars) mark at the Chinese box office, after less than a month in release; it’s the first film ever to take in so much across any length of time there, and it’s waaay more than Star Wars has earned there. (Deadpool has been banned from Chinese cinemas due to its graphic content, so it won’t get a chance to compete.)

The Mermaid, a wholly homegrown Chinese production, has gotten absolutely no PR push from Sony, its distributor in both North America and the U.K., and no press screenings on either side of the Atlantic that I am aware of. But of course I was curious to find out what the Chinese could possibly love so much more than Star Wars… and it’s from Hong Kong filmmaker Stephen Chow, whose very goofy flicks Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle I’ve gotten a big kick out of. Gotta be a win-win, right?

Well. Chow has always been a genre unto himself, his movies like live-action Looney Tunes mashing up disparate elements into a glorious mess that somehow worked in spite of itself. It doesn’t quite work in The Mermaid, though, and while I’m tempted to speculate that perhaps it has to do with the serious theme underlying the cartoonishness here, I don’t think that’s the problem. I think Chow has simply let the silliness get away from him this time, that he went too big and too weird and lost control. A half a billion dollars tells me the average Chinese cinematic sensibility disagrees with that, but there might be a good reason why Sony hasn’t pushed the film in the West: it might be too cartoonish in a way that doesn’t mesh with our tastes.

There’s nothing mean in The Mermaid, for one, which is how mainstream America seems to like their live-action cartoons. (See: the oeuvre of Adam Sandler.) If anything, the story is about how an attempt at totally justified violence gets thwarted by love; meanness is defeated, in more ways than one. That serious issue? Environmental degradation and callous disregard for the natural world. (Maybe that’s what audiences in shockingly polluted China are responding to.) This is a literal fish-out-of-water fantasy about a mermaid, Shan (Jelly Lin), who learns to walk on land so that she can, on behalf of her people, murder the cruel, rapacious industrialist, Liu Xuan (Chao Deng), who is destroying their ocean home. But she is a sweet innocent who has no idea what she has agreed to do; she does not have it in her to kill. Can he be so completely won over by her sweet innocence that he might morph from heartless billionaire to tree-hugger activist?

The Mermaid is the sort of wacky lark in which that’s not an unlikely outcome; this is a movie with as much in common with Golden Age Hollywood screwball comedies — all bouncy optimism even amidst dreadful circumstances, and with a promise of a happy ending — as it does with Bugs Bunny cartoons. But even if you’ve seen Chow’s other films, you may not be prepared for just how all-over-the-place it is. Alongside the fantasy and the romance are slapstick comedy, a musical number, sentimental pathos, and action-adventure (including a brutal battle scene between humans and merfolk that is surprisingly bloody). Some of it is outrageously clever and funny; some of it is ridiculously but cheerfully stupid. Much of all of that is supported by CGI that is so laughably bad that it must be intentionally so. When it gels, it’s delightful: the scene in which Liu Xuan relates his story of an encounter with a mermaid to two skeptical police officers is an absolute hoot; and Shan’s friend Octopus (Tawainese pop star Show Luo), human above the waist and tentacled below, is endlessly amusing. But when it doesn’t work, The Mermaid is a bit of a slog.

The Mermaid is pretty fascinating, though, as a peek into a movie-fan mindset that Hollywood is desperate to cater to. (Marvel movies have been doing very well in China, so someone is fuming over that Deadpool ban.) I can almost guarantee that the big studios have teams of consultants trying to determine what it is about The Mermaid that has so captivated Chinese audiences… so that they can imitate it and get their cut of that boffo Asian box office. We are going to see The Mermaid reflected in Hollywood films, I have no doubt about that. Be prepared.


yellow light 3 stars

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The Mermaid (Mei ren yu) (2016)
US/Can release: Feb 19 2016
UK/Ire release: Feb 19 2016

MPAA: rated R for some violence
BBFC: rated 15 (strong violence)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • RogerBW

    I get the impression that there’s less of a feeling that every single film must rigidly fit a predefined genre. Certainly many of the Chinese (mostly Hong Kong) films I’ve seen have been happy to have swordplay and romance and comedy and serious (if historical) politics, all in the same film.

  • Bluejay

    We are going to see The Mermaid reflected in Hollywood films, I have no doubt about that.

    More films that bring together Bugs Bunny-type slapstick, Golden Age Hollywood optimistic comedy, musical numbers, romance, action-adventure plots, and brutal battle scenes?

    Uh — YES PLEASE!

  • Ralph

    That actually sounds not unlike the most recent series of Agent Carter, if you haven’t caught it already.

  • Bluejay

    Heh. You’re right, although Stephen Chow’s sensibilities are WAY more over-the-top.

  • bronxbee

    i’ve actually read a couple of articles about this movie ad it made me curious… i might try to see it.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I’m kinda surprised that Agent Carter doesn’t get more mention on this forum since it seems to be one of the better superhero shows on the air right now. Of course, ABC is not exactly doing a great job of promoting it — I never realized the series even existed until just before the start of the second season — but I myself found the show to be a welcome bit of fresh air after all the Kryptonian angst on Supergirl.

    So naturally there’s been talk of cancelling it…

  • RogerBW

    Its ratings were pretty marginal in season 1, and I don’t think it has a chance of a third season. But it’s that extremely rare thing, a superhero show I can actually enjoy.

  • Bluejay

    It’s part of Marvel’s superhero universe, but it’s not so much a “superhero show” as a cop show — a period action/comedy cop show with science fictional elements and an Old Hollywood feel. It’s also unafraid to explicitly address sexism and (this season) racism. And Peggy and Jarvis have fantastic chemistry. The show should really be doing better than it is.

  • RogerBW

    Well, quite. It uses some of the tropes of a superhero universe, without dissolving into nonsensical “my power is bigger than yours” city-destroying battles, or pointless angst clouds.

  • bronxbee

    i *love* Agent Carter, but i think it would have been better on Netflix, like the amazing Jessica Jones, where it could have been a little more adult and dark, and other things, than ABC (the Mouse House) will encourage on broadcast TV. if it does get cancelled, i hope it will get picked up by Netflix. i love Haley Atwell, and all the rest of the cast.

  • Bluejay

    I’m not opposed to Netflix picking up the show, but I don’t think it needs to be any darker. There’s plenty darkness with the existing Netflix Marvel shows, while Agent Carter is a spot of refreshing lightness. Variety is a good thing.

  • Mr.Majestic

    Well as long as Agent Carter keeps ignoring Jimmy Woo… I hope it gets cancelled.

  • I still haven’t seen any of *Agent Carter.* Which is more a function of my lack of time to do so than anything else. I’m certainly aware of it…

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