Despite The Mermaid proving to be a massive commercial and critical success in China, I hope that this bizarre, hilarious surrealist comedy proves equally potent in the U.S. market, whose status quo for comedy features has proven static as of late. Comedy is notoriously subjective, but inarguable is Stephen Chow’s mastery of form, his uncanny ability to manipulate tone whether to trigger laughter or empathy from his zany films. It isn’t as subversive as Chow’s international breakthrough Kung Fu Hustle, but The Mermaid typifies the unfettered physical humour, wildly bogus special effects and the non-sequitur signatures of his craft.
There’s a strong eco-friendly message at The Mermaid’s core, but the energy and the heart of the film are the central characters, Liu Xuan (Deng Chao), a womaniser and a rich businessman, and Shan (Lin Yun), a mermaid and one of the last of the “merfolk.” At the start of the film, Liu is a caricature, a man who finds more pleasure spending money than he does on the things he spends it on. In developing a wildlife reserve for a sea reclamation project, Liu is key to the destruction of the “Green Gulf,” the home of Shan and the merfolk, who have retreated away within the confines of a massive, beached ocean liner. Naturally angry, Shan is tasked by the merfolk with seducing the promiscuous Liu and assassinating him. What transpires is something that’s truly unpredictable and hilarious.
The “eco-friendly” message is certainly present throughout the film, oftentime showing disturbing images and uncomfortably evoking The Cove, a documentary exposing the massacre of hundreds of dolphins in Japan. However, The Mermaid never surrenders its comedy to politically correct sentiments, and seems instead to use the cold industrialization of the sea to emphasize the emptiness of Liu’s lucrative lifestyle. The mermaid Shan is hardly a sympathetic character herself, despite the mass victimization of her species. It’s the coldness in her resolve, as well as that of the merfolk, that keep the film’s conflict between the two characters light on dramatic tension, without condemning either as the hero or villain.
The Mermaid thrives off black humour, a type of hilarity that comes at the cost of the characters experiencing unspeakable horrors such as mutilations, poisonings, stabbings, etc. This is of course counterbalanced by the goofiness of the characters, particularly by the film’s show stealer, a vengeful merfolk named Octopus (Show Luo). A character who, instead of graceful fins, sports a totally impractical set of tentacles, which get him into a ridiculous amount of trouble. The pain the characters experience is, of course, our unabashed pleasure. Stephen Chow, in a return to form, induces enough schadenfreude to make us feel completely guilty for laughing, but no less comedically absorbed by what we’re watching unfold.
So uncommon is this breed of comedy, and it’s a crying shame. Action and reaction, clever editing technique and dynamic staging are utilized to full effect; it understands that comedy is not merely a genre, but a medium. Not characterized by a funny script alone, but by every tool a filmmaker has in his creative arsenal. Also effective here are the actors, whose work isn’t confined to the novelty of their dialogue, but defined by how they physically express themselves. You can watch these characters on mute and be amused by how they interact with one another, how they tell a story with facial quirks and bodily motions.
Another unexpected aspect to praise here is the CGI. It’s definitely hokey, but there’s a charm to it, an utter denial to surrender to realism. The way the effects are used is matched by the characters’ goofy actions. It acts as a complimentary feature to the frenetic energy the actors bring to the film. Whether it works for the film’s decidedly more dramatic and gritty final act is questionable. But there’s always a purpose to it, unlike the majority of big-budgeted efforts, who would sooner bloat out such visuals than apply it meaningfully to the story.
Stephen Chow is a virtuoso of his craft, incomparable in his ability to stage a comedy (except maybe by Wes Anderson or Edgar Wright). His humour can be dark but never resorts to a snide or cynical approach. His characters, the sometimes shallow creatures they are, are often victims of circumstance. They are archetypes who play funnily into the tragedy of the film’s oddball but touching romance. The Mermaid is great visual comedy, an absurdist, ecological nightmare who boasts as much empathy as it does hilarity from the story. I can’t recommend it enough, because who knows when we will get another one this good.