For those who watch movies as a form of escapism, there’s perhaps no better mechanism than the Chinese blockbuster “The Mermaid.” It’s a ridiculous slapstick fantasy/sci-fi romantic comedy, featuring a mermaid (newcomer Lin Yun) who falls in love with an environmentally destructive real estate developer (Deng Chao, “Devil and Angel”) she’s been sent by her fellow merpeople to seduce and kill. Ridiculous? Yes. Entertaining? You betcha.
Director Stephen Chow, whose 2004 martial arts comedy “Kung Fu Hustle” is nothing short of a masterpiece, here attempts to reconstruct his signature live-action Looney Tunes style with mild success. “Hustle” lived up to its name, cracking unbelievably funny jokes and visual gags seemingly every second. “The Mermaid” is equally fast-paced and, at a brisk 94 minutes, never slows down from its start.
Chow has a knack for the visuals. From the film’s opening incongruous scene, set at a clearly fake museum for ocean life, Chow’s camera slowly reveals the absurd. As more and more details of the museum are shown, the laughs build and build toward one great punchline at the end. This is often how the film flows. Each scene purports to tell one major joke, and it deliberately lets its audience in on a small detail and widens the scope until we’re able to get the whole joke. It’s a tactic that works very well, but it limits Chow. A master of slapstick, Chow should start to expand beyond his strengths.
Let’s start with the bad. The effects are laughable, quite literally. In fact, it’s as easy to laugh at the effects as the jokes. With a budget of over $61 million, one has to wonder where much of the money went. And yet, to the dismay of visual effects engineers everywhere, the CGI adds to the charm. It takes real comedy skill to sell horrible effects as a positive attribute, but if there’s any movie that could do it, it’s probably this one. The jokes are pretty funny, but often they don’t work with each other, failing to coalesce into one great sequence. Instead, we’re left with fits and starts.
And yet, the jokes that do land excel wonderfully. Whether it’s the business executive, Liu Xuan, trying to describe to inept police officers what the mermaid looks like, or our hero, Shan, spectacularly failing to kill the business executive, ludicrous comedy gold abounds. That latter scene, set to a rather apt track about invincibility, is a call back to the best scene of “Kung Fu Hustle,” an irreverent take on accidental injury (a gag that Chow has developed as a sort of trademark). And the acting, which is over-the-top and hyperbolic, is just simply entertaining, like watching a face contortion contest.
And somehow, the film actually has a message. A parable about the environment, the film’s story features merpeople taking revenge on a capitalist entrepreneur threatening their ecosystem. One truly heart-wrenching scene, despite its tinge of absurdity, depicts human violence toward animals that can’t help but serve as a warning against whaling practices. It’s not the most effective movie to that end — anti-whaling advocacy is far from its primary goal — but it’s hard to shake the environmental baggage from the viewing experience. And at the end, ultimately, it’s impossible to leave without a smile.