Film Review: The Mermaid

Billionaire developer falls for a beautiful mermaid who is trying to kill him in this hard-edged, bracing comedy from Stephen Chow.
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Opening almost secretly in the U.S. after breaking box-office records in China, The Mermaid is the weirdest, hokiest and, at its best, funniest big-budget comedy since Stephen Chow's last film, Journey to the West. With a pointed ecological message to go along with its gleefully cruel slapstick, The Mermaid is far more entertaining than most Asian releases (and a lot of Hollywood ones as well).

Chow starts the movie with short clips of environmental disasters. The Mermaid then tours a "Museum of World Exotic Animals," where baffled tourists see bogus versions of a panther (a dog with stripes painted onto its fur) and a mermaid (really a salted fish). "I'm just trying to make a living," the owner says when they complain.

The script, by Chow and several co-writers, then introduces a massive scheme by self-involved billionaire Liu Xian (Deng Chao) to develop the pristine Green Gulf, skirting wildlife regulations by driving dolphins and other protected fish away with sonar blasts.

But Green Gulf also harbors one of the last groups of humans who millennia before adapted to underwater life. Mermaids, an octopus-man and others are slowly dying from Liu's sonars. In desperation (and a grasp of society based wholly on bad TV shows), the mermaids elect Shan (Jelly Lin) to seduce and kill Liu.

If that weren't enough plot, there's Ruo-lan (Kitty Zhang, who starred in Chow's CJ7), determined to either marry Liu or steal his empire. She's part of a cabal of oligarchs including "Uncle Rich" (film director Tsui Hark) whose excesses Chow lampoons with genuine venom.

Although Chow surrounds the many plotlines with bright, Pop Art colors, and edits scenes with manic energy, it takes a while for The Mermaid to build up steam. It's only when Shan—armed with sea urchins and a fishbone knife—tries to assassinate Liu that Chow can fully display his blend of cartoon slapstick and nonsense dialogue.

Although Shan hates Liu, she must seduce him to kill him, leading to an extended scene in an amusement park where Chow casually punctures romance clichés like love duets and hand-holding montages. Liu, who at first uses Shan to get back at Ruo-lan, starts to learn just what's at stake with his Green Gulf scheme.

Liu Xian is like the roles Chow use to play in The God of Cookery and Sixty Million Dollar Man. Childish, willful, conceited, he sports an array of sparkly, form-fitting suits, fancies himself a ladies' man, erupts into unpredictable tantrums, and is obsessed with sex. Deng Chao has a propulsive drive and the ability to switch moods instantly, even if he lacks Chow's uncanny skill at being both in and out of character at the same time.

Jelly Lin, a Chow discovery, is captivating in her debut. Even with overdone makeup, silly dresses and simpering poses, she projects a disarming innocence. And when she blossoms from ugly duckling, she holds onto her integrity and sharp humor.

Chow occasionally dwells too much on endearingly tacky special effects, and lets the story veer off-target whenever he wants. He also pushes slapstick that some viewers here might find too painful (but that would fit right into a Road Runner cartoon). But his asides (like a long discussion of roast chicken that Liu mistakes for a sex act), his imaginative visuals, and his message of conservation and enlightenment help make The Mermaid a great example of how his comedies can be simultaneously nuanced and bizarre.

The Mermaid is also ridiculously funny, never more so than when Liu tries to convince two skeptical cops that he's been kidnapped by a half-woman, half-fish. That one scene is enough to make The Mermaid a must-see.

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