Stephen Chow’s Mermaid is currently the second-biggest movie in the world — after breaking a bunch of records in China upon its release less than two weeks ago — but you wouldn’t know it from the way it’s being unceremoniously dumped here in the U.S., in a smattering of theaters with little promotion or visibility. A shame, given that Chow is an exceptional filmmaker with a genuine profile over here (he made the beloved classics Kung-Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer). And while it’s easy to see why a distributor might have thought Mermaid — a broad, unclassifiable hybrid that’s equal parts eco-thriller, zany comedy, and earnest romance — might not have enough crossover appeal, this strange, hilarious film clearly merits better.
At first glance, Mermaid looks like what might happen if Stephen Chow decided to cross-breed Splash and You’ve Got Mail with The Ladykillers and a terrifying nightmare I had when I was nine. It follows the romance between filthy-rich playboy businessman Liu Xuan (Chao Deng) and Shan (Yun Lin Jhuang), a beautiful mermaid posing as a human in order to kill him. Liu has just spent an ungodly amount of money on a pristine wildlife preserve called the Green Gulf, and wants to build on it in order to make his investment back. He’s surrounded by assistants and hangers-on and fellow bazillionaires, all representative of China’s opportunistic new moneyed class. (At one point, a beautiful, scheming business partner of his gets a small gaggle of beauties off Liu by tossing an $8 million watch into a pool. When the girls all dive in to claim the watch, Liu remarks, “They’re young people, working hard for their money!”)
Meanwhile, Shan belongs to an ancient race of mermaids who are being wiped out by the powerful sonars placed in the Gulf to drive out the sea life. The idea is that if the dolphins and other protected species go away and never come back, the area will no longer be a preserve. She and the remaining mermaids live in a cavernous lair at the base of an abandoned freighter in the Gulf, where, led by a dreadlocked half-man, half-mollusk named Octopus (Show Luo), they conceive of elaborate ways to kill Liu: poison, sea urchin, fish-spine shivs, etc. But the sweet-natured Shan, quite aside from being a complete klutz with weaponry — a sequence in which she attempts to kill Liu through a variety of methods made me laugh harder than any movie of the past few months — also realizes that there might be more to this sleazy businessman than she first thought, and begins to fall for him.
It’s a great set-up for Chow’s comic imagination to run wild. Using colorful, ostentatiously fake CGI, he turns the mermaids’ antics into a surreal frenzy of slapstick. But even though the effects are phony and the situations silly, he knows how to make a gag visceral. At one point, Octopus decides to take matters into his own, er, hands and shows up at Liu’s home, posing as a sushi chef. But then two other chefs show up and he has to play along as his tentacles are grilled, ground, tenderized, and sliced, trying to hold in his pain. Chow loves to take things too far, and he does so here, too: The supreme discomfort of the scene somehow makes it even funnier. But it doesn’t always work that way. There’s a surprising bit of carnage at the end of the film, when the humans and the mermaids finally face off, and it’s not of the bubbly, Kung-Fu Hustle kind.
Mermaid is a very, very funny movie, but its caustic swipes at China’s nouveau riche, combined with its despairing look at the devastation of the country’s environment, suggest a filmmaker trying to find ways to reconcile his buoyant sense of fun with deeper, darker themes. It’s not clear whether Chow has reconciled them, as the film often shifts jarringly between tones, from broad humor to swooning romance, to eco-message movie. (It even has a couple of musical numbers.) But it’s amazing how distinctive and strange Mermaid manages to be, especially given the highly derivative concept — how personal it feels, amid all the absurdist, go-for-broke humor. It deserves to be seen.