EXPECTATIONS: A hilarious and off-kilter experience. What else can you expect from Stephen Chow?
REVIEW: ANOTHER STEPHEN CHOW FILM?! I would probably faint and feel dehydrated but I have a review to write. Oh yes, the newest film from comedic genius/director Stephen Chow. First off, Chow, alongside Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun-fat, was one of the major factors that got me into Hong Kong Cinema. I have been a huge fan of his work ever since I was six years old, when I first watched his action/comedy film, Fight Back to School II. His egotistical attitude, flair for physical comedy and his verbal expertise had such an impact on me; I wholeheartedly credit him for attaining my sense of humour. And his best films (God of Cookery, Love on Delivery etc.) are usually the ones that he directs (or co-directs), so when I heard he would not be starring in his recent films, I was very reticent, but Journey to the West – Conquering the Demons proved me wrong and his distinct comedic sensibility and compelling genre mixing direction are still intact. Again, he directs but does NOT star in his latest film, The Mermaid. Earning the credit of being the highest-grossing film in China mere months after Monster Hunt, does it deserve its sterling reputation?
Deng Chao stars as Liu Xuan, an egotistical billionaire playboy tycoon who purchases the Green Gulf, a wildlife reserve, for a sea reclamation project. Working alongside Ruolan (Zhang Yuqi), they acquire powerful sonar technology to get rid of all sea-life in the area. But little do they know, is that there is a populace of merpeople and many of them are either injured or have died from the use of the sonar. Now inhabiting an abandoned shipwreck in the Green Gulf, the merpeople, led by Octopus propose a plan to assassinate Liu Xuan. Taking Liu Xuan’s playboy personality as an opportunity, the merpeople recruit Shan (Jelly Lin Yun) and train her to socialize among humans to eventually meeting up with Liu Xuan. But little does she know when the two meet, the two would form a romantic relationship that will spell out the fate of the merpeople.
When I heard that Chow was making a film about mermaids, I thought it would be a twist on the romance formula that is The Little Mermaid. But it turns out that it is more than that. Not only is it a Stephen Chow comedy and a romance film, it is also an environmental message to the people about the damage the world has suffered. And not being one for subtlety, Chow shows a minute-long montage of it in the beginning of the film, but fortunately, that is about as preachy as it gets, as the film is in support of the story and the message, not vice-versa. It is also notable that Chow throws away expectations of the mermaid genre to great effect. For example, Shan never grows legs when she ventures on land, so she ends up with a very goofy walk and sometimes uses a skateboard. Another example is that Shan is absolutely oblivious of how beautiful she is and uses her sex appeal (or lack thereof) like a siren to ill effect. It is inventive touches like this that make the film stand out.
But let’s get to the nitty-gritty. How is the comedy in the film? I am happy to tell you that the comedy is still there and it is thanks to Stephen Chow’s direction and the wonderful cast of newcomers (to Chow’s oeuvre) and regulars. Jelly Lin Yun gives a star-making performance as the ridiculously lovable Shan, that is very reminiscent of actress Shu Qi as well as the lovable loser archetype that Chow would usually play (like in Love on Delivery, Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle) or even Zhang Yuqi’s performance in the Stephen Chow-produced/co-written Jump. Her chemistry between Deng Chao is great from a romance standpoint as well as a comedic standpoint, but her physical comedic chops are so good, I literally choked at one point. There’s a scene where she is using her mermaid weapons to kill Liu Xuan and she fails miserably, with hilariously cruel results.
Speaking of hilariously cruel results, Show Luo gives an even better Stephen Chow impression than he did in Journey to the West – Conquering the Demons, which is reminiscent of the deadpan Stephen Chow archetype (like in Fight Back to School) and he has one of the best moments in the film where he pretends to be a hibachi chef. The treatment of his character would make the director of Oldboy blush. Deng Chao is great as Liu Xuan and he seems to be having a lot of fun getting into the playboy attitude. His character is also reminiscent of the egotistical archetype that director Chow would usually play. As for Zhang Yuqi, she usually plays the eye candy in movies (even in her debut film, Cj7), but she showcased some great comedic chops in Tsui Hark’s All About Women. It was a surprise for me to see her in The Mermaid since she and Chow were in a lawsuit involving contractual obligations. But her performance in The Mermaid, she is the vamp incarnate. She literally owns the screen every time shows up, and it is shocking to see how far she’s come, especially when you compare her to her incredibly genial performance in Jump. Her character is cliched as far as it can get, but she relishes the material she has and goes all the way.
Speaking of those in conflict with Chow, actor Tin Kai-man had bad things to say about him in a past interview about him being cheap and he had not worked with him since Jump, almost 8 years ago. In The Mermaid, he has a funny cameo as a museum visitor who cannot hold in his laughter. I do hope this is a beginning of past collaborators coming back to work with Chow again. Other cameos include acclaimed director Tsui Hark as Uncle Rich, a name that tells everything and show-stealing Zhang Wen, who had played the lead in Journey to the West – Conquering the Demons. His cameo alongside Chow collaborator Lee Shing-cheung resulted in one of the funniest scenes in 2016 so far. The sheer absurdity of the story and plot is put into focus in this one scene and is all the more hilarious for it. Like the scene involving the assassination and the hibachi chef scene, Chow’s sense of humour tends to revolve around the cruel treatment of his characters and just when you sense how cruel the physical gags can get, it will just make you laugh even harder. All of the Chow hallmarks are present: Bruce Lee influences, cross-dressers, the use of a restaurant stool, Japanimation sense of timing, Looney Tunes sense of humour (characters literally take out props from nowhere) lovable losers rising up, egotistical people falling from grace, “uglified” female characters (at one point) and the use of classical Chinese music. The Fist of Fury theme and the theme from Legend of the Condor Heroes 1983 (Part 3) are used to great nostalgic effect as well as getting the emotional conflict across.
But there are some nagging problems in the story that distract more than amuse, like the pleasing of Chinese censors. Foreigners in the film (consisting of Westerners and Japanese) are villains and are even portrayed as insane. Though that can be amusing at times (like a darkly amusing joke involving a selfie), it just comes off as xenophobic. It also affects the Stephen Chow archetypes that he is trying to achieve. Deng Chao’s character was meant to be the egotistical savant suffering a fall from grace (like in God of Cookery, King of Beggars and Sixty Million Dollar Man), but the hard-edged humour that usually goes along with it has dulled. The CGI is also surprisingly cheap, considering that the CGI in Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle and CJ7 were much better, that it is quite hard to take seriously in the dramatic parts of the film, particularly the climax.
But overall, The Mermaid is a fantastic comedy, a out-of-this-world romance, an important environmental message that truly deserves its success, beating out every other Chinese New Year film with ease. The Little Mermaid (2017) remake has some big shoes to fill after this.
The cast all give great performances
The film’s sense of humour brings lots of laughs
Some surprising elements
Obvious China censorship
Cast: Jelly Lin Yun, Deng Chao, Show Luo, Zhang Yuqi, Kris Wu, Lam Tze-chung, Zhang Wen, Tsui Hark, Lee Shing-cheung
Director: Stephen Chow
Screenwriter: Stephen Chow, Kelvin Lee, Ho Miu-kei, Lu Zhengyu, Fung Chih-chiang, Ivy Kong, Chan Hing-ka, Tsang Kan-cheung