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.