Stephen Chow’s latest movie, Mei ren yu (translated to The Mermaid in English), made a huge splash in China and is on track to be the country’s highest-grossing film of all time—but it may not translate as well for U.S. audiences. The sci-fi blockbuster was released in China on Feb. 8, and now it’s landing in the U.S. Feb. 19 in hopes of expanding its massive box office success.
From the opening sequence of billowing factory smog and oil-covered seagulls, it’s clear that The Mermaid will include environmentalism as a major theme. Sure enough, the plot revolves around a money-hungry business mogul named Liu Xian (Deng Chao) who uses harmful underwater sonar technology to clear the water of dolphins around his new property of Green Gulf. However, Liu’s devices also harm or kill several mermaids who live in the area, and force the surviving mermaids to live in a nearby shipwreck, unable to return to the ocean.
To get revenge, the mermaids hatch a plan to kill Liu. They select their most attractive mermaid, Shan (Lin Yun), alter her tail so that she can walk (more like waddle) on land, then seduce and kill the man responsible for their plight. But of course, Shan and Liu begin to actually fall for each other, complicating the plan.
The Mermaid is at its best when it embraces the ridiculous, no-holds-barred, farcical comedy that Chow has become known for, thanks to films like Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer. From the start, and throughout the middle of the movie, Chow and his actors present a full-force farce. Sure, some jokes fall flat, but the sheer magnitude of ridiculousness has you forgetting about that soon afterwards. Lin Yun in particular proves she has a talent for physical comedy in a standout scene where her attempts to assassinate Liu Xian backfire, and she winds up taking two sea urchins and a golf club to the face.
But when the farcical elements fade away toward the end, the movie becomes far less enjoyable. Pretty much out of nowhere, we find ourselves not in a silly, spoofy romance, but in a horribly gruesome action movie. The climactic scene is a blood-drenched massacre that feels entirely disconnected from the movie up to that point. And after that, the film shifts into a dramatic romance for one scene between Liu and Shan. Although the content of the scene is touching, it lacks real stakes because the characters and their relationship have been presented as comical for the bulk of the film.
Another thing that suffers from the ending’s shift away from farce is the effects. Mermaids flying stiffly through the air is funny when the movie doesn’t take itself seriously, but not during an action sequence. However, the water effects created by the elder mermaid do remain breath-taking throughout.
Much like a mermaid is made up of two incongruent halves, The Mermaid itself is a genre hybrid of a relentlessly silly farce and a gory action movie, but sadly, the result isn’t so magical. The Mermaid makes for a great comedy, but a tasteless action flick. B–