As China’s box office prowess continues to mount, U.S. studios are increasingly insistent on tailoring films to make a dent in the market. But even as Hollywood scrambles to adapt its product for the Chinese market, Chinese filmmakers seem less concerned with pulling off the reverse. Case in point: Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid.
Chow is perhaps best known over here for the cult classic comedies Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, martial arts parodies that subverted the genre in increasingly unpredictable ways. In The Mermaid, as with his recent Journey to the West, he steps into the mainstream, taking on a bigger budget to create one of the country’s burgeoning strain of blockbusters.
Newcomer Jelly Lin is the mermaid Shan, one of the last of a species crippled by industrialisation. She’s sent on a mission to seduce and kill real estate tycoon Liu Xian (Deng Chao), but — surprise, surprise — she ends up falling for him.
It’s safe to say that The Mermaid isn’t exactly striking new narrative ground, and what plot there is is hamstrung by an environmental message so heavy-handed it makes Avatar look like a deft touch. Despite boasting one of China’s larger budgets the digital effects are also mostly lacklustre, the mermaid’s tails in particular seeming distinctly fishy — or, rather, not.
What the film does boast is Stephen Chow’s natural sense for physical comedy, both in slapstick spectacle and drawing out remarkably expressive performances from his young cast. Wordplay inevitably loses something in translation — a joke about the mispronunciation of ‘Madonna’ as ‘McDonald’ is especially excruciating — but most of the comedy is left intact.
There’s also a welcome dark streak, familiar to fans of Chow’s work but absent from Hollywood’s big budget fare. A scene where an octopus-legged merman must allow his own limbs to be sliced, bashed, and minced on a teppanyaki grill to avoid giving himself away is alternately horrifying and hilarious, a punishing sequence the likes of which you won’t see in a Disney film any time soon.
The Mermaid loses some of Chow’s charm in its attempt to tick the big budget boxes, and finds itself in the uncomfortable position of being slightly too weird to find mass-market appeal in the West, but not quite weird enough to pick up cult status. Fans of his will doubtless find something to enjoy here, but The Mermaid raises an uncomfortable question: do we really want another Hollywood?
This Blu-ray release comes with both an unbearable English dub and a subtitled option, along with two brief, self-congratulatory behind-the-scenes featurettes and a very forgettable music video.
Words by Dominic Preston