With an engaging mix of goofy comedy, charming romance and a heartfelt, if somewhat trite, message of ecological sanity, Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid has achieved massive financial success. After less than two weeks in release, it has become the highest-grossing Chinese language film in history, soaring past last summer’s Monster Hunt. The story of a mermaid sent by her people to assassinate the real estate developer who has been trashing their home waters, but who instead falls in love with the guy and leads him to a new ecological awareness, the film lacks much of the anarchic edge or verbal dexterity of Chow’s early mo lei tau comedies, or the transcendent martial arts climaxes of his Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. It is nonetheless packed to the gills with the kind of moment-to-moment weirdness that characterizes Hong Kong cinema in general and the films of Stephen Chow in particular, moments of sublime whimsy enlivening simplistic political point-making.
Chow began his film career in the late 1980s, after several years working in Hong Kong television (he, like his friend Tony Leung Chiu-wai, was a host of the popular children’s program 430 Space Shuttle), earning a Supporting Actor nomination from the Golden Horse Awards for a dramatic role in his debut film, the Parkman Wong cop movie Final Justice. His breakout role was in1990’s All for the Winner, a parody of the popular Wong Jing-directed/Chow Yun-fat-starring gambling action-comedy God of Gamblers (which was itself a parody of a straight thriller called Casino Raiders). Wong combined the two films in his sequel God of Gamblers II, uniting the casts and leading to several more sequels (variations of which are still on-going, 25 years later, with the From Vegas to Macau series, another Wong Jing/Chow Yun-fat collaboration the third film of which opened alongside The Mermaid this past Lunar New Year). Stephen Chow quickly followed this success with a string of box office smashes, dominating the last Golden Age of the Hong Kong industry with films like Fight Back to School (I-III), Fist of Fury 1991 (I & II), All for the Winner, Tricky Brains, The Royal Tramp (I & II), King of Beggars, Justice, My Foot!, The Mad Monk, and more. In all he starred in a remarkable 34 films between 1990 and 1994, usually in the mo lei tau (or "makes no sense") comedy style, a blend of complex Cantonese puns, bizarre visual humor, and a blithe indifference to classical storytelling technique.
By the mid-90s Chow had begun directing as well, and with 1996’s God of Cookery he hit upon the formula that almost all his subsequent films would follow: a young man with big dreams fakes his way to a degree of success and is then beaten down, with the help of a kooky young woman and a group of oddballs he achieves a kind of mystical enlightenment, rises again and ultimately triumphs over the villains, usually rich and powerful businessmen and/or gangsters. These films matched the nonsense wordplay of his early starring roles to a coherent narrative structure and, aided by a new generation of digital effects, a cartoonish visual style in which literally anything becomes possible. Where mo lei tau pioneers the Hui Brothers took classical Hollywood comedy from Stan Laurel to Jerry Lewis as their model for a string of slapstick hits in the 1970s and 80s, Chow added the Looney Tunes surreality of Frank Tashlin and Chuck Jones. The result were some of the most sophisticated, wild and inventive comedies ever made.
The Mermaid too follows in this tradition. Like his 2013 Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, Chow doesn’t appear on-screen—he hasn’t acted in a film since 2008’s CJ7. In a new development, the narrative focus is shifted to the young woman character, with newcomer Jelly Lin as the mermaid acting as the primary protagonist. The traditional Chow role is played by Deng Chao as the spiritually empty real estate developer who is destroying the oceans to further his business goals. Deng falls in love with Lin (she’s disguised as a human) and through that romance reaches an ecological epiphany. This epiphany, unlike those attained in Chow’s previous films, is a secular one: there’s nothing particularly Taoist or Buddhist about respect for the environment. The shift to a female protagonist is mirrored by the antagonist, played by Zhang Yuqi, a ruthlessly amoral businesswoman who is Deng’s rival and partner in the land development deal. The gang of oddballs are the mermaids, half-human/half-CGI creations that live in a massive half-sunken tanker, the interior of which is filled with an ingenious series of slingshots and trampolines which the footless merpeople must use to climb to the exit at the top of the ship. The spacious and curvilinear sets (given even greater depth by the film's 3D cinematography) are filled with tiny details and jokes, such as a race car bed Deng lounges on next to a pool at a party at his house which is labeled “CEO Furniture,” and cameo appearances from familiar faces like Tsui Hark, who plays one of Deng’s business rivals (Tsui is currently directing the sequel to Journey to the West).
The movie’s standout comic sequence makes extensive use of the set design, a series of mishaps early in the film accompanying Lin’s first attempt to assassinate Deng. A maddening arrangement of mirrors separates her from her prey, an unseen glass partition causes the poisonous sea urchin she hurls at him to rebound and stick to her head, a workman opens an unexpected cabinet door into her face, her attempts to stab Deng from under a table are undone by his arrhythmic dancing to his favorite tune, the theme song from the 1983 TV series “Legend of the Condor Heroes.” A battered and comically bruised Lin inspires a little sympathy in Deng, and she, changing tactics, drags him in turn to her favorite place on land: a roasted chicken stand at an amusement park (the lead up to this is a comic misunderstanding which is incomprehensible if you don’t know that “chicken” is Cantonese slang for a prostitute). Bonding over chicken and puking together on the various park rides, Lin puts Deng in touch with his forgotten poverty-plagued youth, leading him on his first steps to environmental awareness (he loses his fake mustache along the way).
The thematic directness of The Mermaid is its worst quality, with the characters routinely stating their motives in the most nakedly ridiculous manner (fortunately, even this is usually hilarious: Deng and Zhang repeatedly asserting that money is the only thing they care about, or a scientific demonstration in which a chirpy young scientist gleefully disintegrates a goldfish). Instead, the power of the film comes from its images, from the blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality, between digital and practical effects. In one sequence, the leader of the merpeople, a half-man/half-octopus known only as Octopus, disguises himself as a teppanyaki chef and approaches Deng and Lin from behind the grill. When Deng’s bodyguards and the two real chefs then turn up, he must pretend that his unruly legs are in fact the main course for the meal. Actor Show Luo’s face contorts as three of his plastic and CGI legs are fried, seasoned, diced and served to the diners. Chow cuts between shots of the fake legs and the actor’s reactions, restrained so as not to reveal his true identity, the comedy demands we recognize the disconnect between real actor and fake legs. Later, when Zhang’s paramilitary operatives discover the merpeople’s location and proceed to slaughter them, Chow shows the process either in long shot, with whole bodies being machine gunned or chopped up, or completely obscured, as when a gang of the thugs beats a defenseless merman. These images pointedly recall the archival scenes of dolphins being murdered on beaches Chow had shown us twice before, once at the beginning and again when Deng uses the internet to learn about all the horrible things businessmen like him are doing to the environment. The clash between the comic horror of the early sequence and the stomach-churning horror of the second is not unusual in Hong Kong cinema, a cinema of generic impurity where action, comedy, romance and horror routinely intermingle to degrees that Hollywood script-writing manuals would find abhorrent.
The movie begins with a prologue, unrelated to the narrative that follows. A crowd of weird Hong Kongers, classic Stephen Chow types—a slacked-jawed yokels, a perky teen girl, an overweight matron—takes a tour of a slapdash Exotic Animal Museum. The curator, in the middle of a game of mahjong with an even weirder menagerie (an old woman in a house dress and facial mask steals every shot she’s in with her deadpan reactions), intermittently shows them his collection: a gecko made-up as a Tyrannosaurus Rex (a carefully placed lamp casts a frightening shadow on the wall behind), a “Bat Man” with chicken wings for ears, a mermaid that consists of a baby doll glued to a piece of salted fish. When the outraged crowd demands their money back, the curator reveals his prize find, a curtain pulls back and out of a bathtub arises the man himself, dressed as a mermaid complete with stringy wig, coconut bra and lipstick smeared across his goateed face. It’s pathetic and horrifying and hilarious, and the crowd throws him out onto the street. We see him again at the climax of the film, when Jelly Lin, pursued by gunmen, shot, harpooned and dying, lands on the pier next to the curator, still wearing his mermaid outfit (he quickly snaps a photo with his phone). This is the meeting between practical and digital effects.
The old world of cheap, dingy, outrageous ingenuity versus the seamless realism enabled by 21st century technology. Chow has never accepted the tyranny of verisimilitude, which is why the reality of the violence in The Mermaid is so shocking. Chow the showman uses technology to give us the impossibly silly and beautiful, an aged mermaid using her gigantic tail to create whole worlds out of splashing water as she narrates the history of her people. Chow the activist uses it to illustrate with brutal bluntness his political message. As Donald Richie said about Akira Kurosawa, a filmmaker opposite to Chow in every other respect, Stephen Chow’s talent is greater than his desire to be socially useful.