The Mermaid, like its titular character, is a hybridised creature. It is a strange mix of comedy, romance, fantasy and ‘eco-thriller’ (think a diluted version of San Andreas), allowing the film to take on a multifaceted existence. Great filmmakers have often experimented on the fault lines between genres, blurring the divides and creating legitimate questions about the arbitrariness of genre. Unfortunately, The Mermaid (Written, Produced and Directed by Hong Kong veteran Stephen Chow) shows that there are good reasons why these lineations exist.
The film follows the mermaid Shan Shan (played by newcomer Jelly Lin) and the wealthy rags-to-riches playboy, Liu Xuan (played by Deng Chao) as their stories fatefully intertwine. Liu Xuan acquires the conservation area of Green Gulf, and with his business partner and sometime lover Ruolan (played by Zhang Yuqi) works to rid the area of aquatic life in order to reclaim the land. His efforts lead to the steep decline in the mermaid population, who send the beautiful Shan Shan to the mainland to seduce and assassinate him.
Chow’s intuitive talent for comedy continues to be unquestionable in The Mermaid. He still possesses that unique ability to paint a rich comedic tapestry with only the tools of vulgarity and campy-ness at his disposal. For Chow, fantasy does not exist separately from comedy, and in this sense, mermaids were a wonderful springboard from which his imagination soars. His use of dialogue, while bawdy, is irresistibly playful, while the creative depth of his characters are out of this world.
Surprisingly, it is Chow’s calefare cast who fare exceptionally well, who in their bit parts give his comedy depth and vibrance. Within the space of seconds, characters such as an old perverted mermaid and a man who laughs and spits uncontrollably had me in stitches. Furthermore, the genuinely humorous dynamic between Deng Chao and Jelly Lin helps to keeps this unadventurous plot fresh. A particularly memorable scene between them is the one where Shan Shan tries to assassinate Liu Xuan. His sharp wits clash with her bumbling attempts, and reflects Chow’s ability to bridge the gap between witty satire and ‘Three Stooges’ slapstick.
What attempts to give The Mermaid its decidedly modern twist is Chow’s inclusion of the issue of environmentalism. To engage with such politically loaded issues is not something Chow is particularly known for – his internationally successful action comedies Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kungfu Hustle (2004) barely rocked the boat in this regard. Yet, this film seems intent on doing so, opening with a montage of shots that show scenes of environmental disarray that are the bread and butter of environmental activism: sewage pipes draining into the sea, factories hacking black smoke into the air, and deforestation all make an appearance. This montage set up the story as one whose narrative is deeply concerned with putting forth a thoughtful, eye-opening exploration of humanity, and the detrimental consequences of human exploitative behaviour. Instead, the ‘eco-thriller’ narrative was shallow at best, being abandoned early on for Chow’s comedic exploits.
Chow attempts to use the mermaids as a crude vehicle for the audience to relate to the suffering of sea creatures, putting forth the simple mantra that fish are people too. But this message is relayed in jumps and starts; a shot of a sick mermaid is seen towards the beginning; however, then the mermaids turn their energies toward assassinating Liu Xuan, and seem to lose sight of what really matters, with their half-man half-octopus leader (played by the effervescent Show Luo) becoming consumed with bloodlust. As Liu Xuan mentions when eventually captured, “if you kill me, how am I going to turn the sonars off?” Chow yanks the environmentalism bent back into the fray at the end of the film, in a bizarre scene that shows mermaids being shot at, harpooned, and beaten to death, in a manner that elicits striking parallels to the clubbing of seals. This brutal scene that is ideologically armed to the teeth is Chow’s attempt to re-instil the sense of purpose with which the film began, but it was simply a case of too little, too late.
While The Mermaid was at times an enjoyable festival of laughs, Chow’s artless transitions between comedy and eco-thriller is its downfall. Its employment of a style of comedy that is antithetical to the seriousness of the environmental issues dealt with. In so doing, the comedy fails to make more palatable the eco-thriller, nor does the eco-thriller temper the comedy. Two independent genres struggling to tell their tales in a single film creates an incoherent narrative that leaves the watchers of The Mermaid wondering whether they should laugh, or cry.
Review score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Mermaid is currently screening across Australia.