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-[Film Reviews]-, Chinese Cinema, East Asian Cinema

‘The Mermaid’ (2016): Generic Fantasy with Hamfisted Social Commentary


Directed by: Stephen Chow || Produced by: Stephen Chow, Y.Y. Khong, La Peikang, Yang Wei, Wang Changtian, Yang Zhenhua, Cao Pu, Liu Yang, Wei Jie, Cai Dongqing

Screenplay by: Stephen Chow, Kelvin Lee, Ho Miu-kei, Lu Zhengyu, Fung Chih-chiang, Ivy Kong, Chan Hing-ka, Tsang Kan-cheung || Starring: Deng Cho, Lin Yun, Show Luo, Zhang Yuqi, Lu Zhengyu, Fan Shuzhen, Li Shangzheng, Bo Xiolong, Pierre Bourdaud

Music by: Raymond Wong || Cinematography: Sung Fai Choi || Edited by: Cheung Ka-fai, Cheng Man-to || Country: China || Language: Mandarin

Running Time: 94 minutes

Chinese box office power has become a recurring theme in the modern globalized movie industry, with Hollywood productions seeking to gain access to the country’s lucrative yet censored middle-class by any means necessary. Mass audience taste in film seems to be comparable across cultural barriers, with special FX, giant robots, and pre-established videogame and comic book properties performing well overseas.

Still, it’s easy for Westerners to forget about the massive country’s own high-profile blockbusters. Korea has stolen the show with regards to most of the past decade’s hits from the East Asian diaspora, while Japan tends to dominate the early to mid-20th century forerunners of popular cinema. Hong Kong is for action-aficionados (John Woo, anyone?), and there’s some occasional cross-pollination between it and mainland China.


Left: A real mermaid (not really)! Right: Two police officers attempt to help Deng Chao (center) find his mythological kidnappers.

However, a homegrown megahit the size of Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid is a rarity, a film which has smashed national records and become the country’s highest grossing movie of all time, netting $553 million on a budget of $60 million. Chow (Shaolin Soccer [2001], Kung Fu Hustle [2004]), also the film’s co-writer and co-producer (the film is credited with eight writers and ten producers), clearly has a knack for imagining colorful, whimsical crowd-pleasers, and I’ll give him credit for pushing original screenplays.

That being said, your enjoyment of The Mermaid will depend on your tolerance for schmaltzy, melodramatic bullshit. Much like the formulaic, preachy Hollywood blockbusters it imitates, or the corny, overacted Bollywood hits that dominate South Asia, The Mermaid alternates between entertaining and irritating, between fun and stupidity, and between genuine cinematic ambition and utter filmmaking laziness. 

The Mermaid plays like an updated live-action version of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid (1837), which Chow admits was an inspiration and was also the basis for Disney’s 1989 film of the same name. The plot itself is serviceable enough, involving a cynical, disillusioned corporate billionaire (a great Deng Chao) who unwittingly pollutes a nearby marine ecosystem, which happens to be the home of several not-so-mystical mermaids and mermen. These mer-people(?) have had it with suffering in silence, and decide to initiate a “honey-plot” assassination on Chao with one of their more attractive mermaids, Lin Yun. I’ll let you figure out the rest of the story.

I must stress there’s nothing wrong with this simple, straightforward plot in principle — many great films have been made and will continue to be made with this narrative setup — but The Mermaid’s execution of its predictable story is more bad Bollywood than Spielberg in his prime. As I alluded to above, The Mermaid is an inconsistent film. Every charming scene seems to be balanced out by a dumb one.

The narrative premise is fine, but the story never deepens beyond its initial environmental message, which is heavy-handed and comically simplistic to say the least. All its characters are one-dimensional stereotypes, including and especially Zhang Yuqi’s femme fatale antagonist. Deng and Lin extend beyond their stock characters through sheer chemistry and great comedic timing, but everyone else is a flatline.

The film’s comedy is effective, and more visual than most mainstream Western comedies starring hacks from Adam Sandler to Amy Schumer to Kevin Hart. That being said, the film abruptly shifts genres an hour into its 94-minute running time, transforming from a lighthearted, fantastical comedy into a violent, brutal science-fiction action-thriller. I got flashbacks to the bizarre, out-of-place, hyper-violent ending of the otherwise similarly quaint, romantic-comedy Dilwale Dulhania La Jayenge (1995).


Leading lady Lin Yun (left) fights for her people along with Show Luo (right), who is a kind of octopus-merman hybrid.

A similar juxtaposition exists between The Mermaid’s pleasant soundtrack, featuring its theme song, “Invincible,” written by Chow and sung by Deng, and the film’s cheap visual FX. While its lazy digital FX and obvious blue-screen scenery are tolerable during the earlier, less serious acts of the movie, when the story transitions to “high-octane” sci-fi action, its special FX stick out like a sore thumb. Simply put, this movie sounds nice but looks cheap.

The Mermaid is not a bad movie, despite how much I’ve railed against it.  It is, however, a mediocre film at best with vanilla characters, an OK supporting cast, two likable leads, and questionable production values. If the movie had doubled down on its comedic elements, it would’ve been a much better film, and its shaky CGI would’ve been more forgivable. As it stands now, The Mermaid remains a titan in Asian filmmaking and especially the Chinese market from a box office perspective, but as far as artistic merit goes, it’s as bland and commercialized as they come. The Mermaid makes for an interesting watch as an outsider and an American film-buff, but I can’t recommend it to many, if any, people beyond the East Asian masses.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Mermaid is not soulless, but it isn’t memorable or proficient in any particular cinematic aspect besides its humor, which fades after an hour. Deng Chao and Lin Yun are the best parts of the movie, and I found myself wishing the movie had been a more generic romantic-drama without any terrible visual FX or extensive science-fiction subplots. Great filmmaking efforts can turn even ordinary, everyday “dramatic” scenery into cinematic experiences, but The Mermaid does not seem interested in nor capable of doing so.


? How does one, you know… sleep with a Mermaid?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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