Instead of Native Americans and instead of the Na’vi, Stephen Chow’s “The Mermaid” combines the traditional and predictable narrative of intersecting race and/or species as a focus of a love relationship surrounded by discriminating tension. Yet, for any moviegoer experienced in Chow’s direction then you know that this predictable narrative will be blown up with no regard for any sort of elite integrity. No, “The Mermaid” is a film that is at once familiar but is executed in a manner that, at the very least, is maniacally ludicrous. There is an incredibly good time to be had but at such goofy extremes comes with questionable costs in tone and plot development.
“The Mermaid” has a significant environmental angle to its zaniness. A business mogul, Lui Xuan (Deng Chao), who purchased a large stretch of Chinese coast has placed a sonar device that emits a violating sound wave that supposedly destroys or badly injures marine life. The reason for doing this has slipped the reviewer’s mind but in no way does this really make a difference, at least in for three fifths of the film. Also effected by this sound-emitting device is a group of mermaids who send their naive seductress, Shan (Lin Yun), to assassinate the man and end their oppression. In those first three fifths (specificity of fraction totally intended), Chow shows us why he and his seven screenwriters are champions of the cinematically insane. Nevermind the loose editing that espouses a sort of intoxicated pacing to some of the scenes early on and nevermind the CGI that seems to have been done mostly haphazardly (though there are some well-crafted images and animations to be had in isolation). What really sells are the setpieces, the slapstick fervor that generates visual laughing gas in the form of excellent comedic timing. One scene involves Shan trying her very best to stab Xuan in his penthouse but, instead, she manages to poison herself, lodge two sea urchins in her face, and get slammed upside the head by a golf club. How it all comes together needs to be seen, but the audience is transported through an emotional crescendo of worthy cringes and gasps until it culminated in supremely justified laughter.
When Liu and Shan eventually fall in love with each other, they spend time at the amusement park Shan works at (she disguises herself as a human…far less graceful than Ariel) and those moments of happy montage Chow just throws into a meat grinder and all the globs of meat and chunks make up the ridiculous courtship between a human and a mermaid. Other great scenes involve possibly the most satisfying character, Octopus (Show Luo), whose animated tentacles should be celebrated while his acting is perfect for such a story. Octopus’s misadventures become a running gag that succeeds because of repetition. In these three fifths, Chow is endowed with unmitigated confidence with his comedy and the film is a blast. Towards the end of the second act and the beginning of the third act, though, “The Mermaid,” loses grasp to the most valuable thing it endorsed.
For some reason derived from odd sensibilities, Chow and his seven writers venture to far more serious content when Xuan discovers Shan is a mermaid and the injurious life her kind lives in. The environmental consequences, which never were entirely profound to begin with, begin taking control over the film’s tone and, thus, turn the film into something less funny and more melodramatic. Whereas early in the film the melodrama was soaked in powerful stupidity, a good thing, the melodrama in the last act became more desperate and did not fit with images on screen. There were fewer funnier moments and even fewer moments where you can let yourself laugh out loud. Instead, we are subjected to unproven shots of mermaids being stabbed to death and shot by a barrage of bullets to suppose that Chow was trying to recreate the scene in “Avatar” where the humans shoot down the ecologically vital tree. The fight scene still carried absurdity, but it was also gory and ferocious to the point where the sacrifices of the main characters held a weight far more dramatic than it needed to be. Interpretively, it is awkwardness that resonates from the screen.
Alas, it is such a letdown that something so wild, free, and absolutely idiotic can slow down and reserve itself for mediocre action. The confidence seemed to have withered and the story exposed its predictability at that point. Such narrative turmoil notwithstanding, the film is still a uniquely fun experience. As weird as the film perpetually is, there is an inviting nature to its playfulness, as if the film itself is playground where we can all be slobbering toddlers once again who make poop jokes and could care less if snot is running down our noses. It is a playfulness that relaxes us because the absence of seriousness provides something more calming. In effect, this playfulness provided a more tangible vehicle for the film’s environmental critique than the dramatic shift in the last act. One could only wonder what would happen if the tone remained consistent.