It sounds ridiculous to say that Hollywood movies are made a certain way. Over a century of trial and error, American moviegoers and filmmakers alike have developed a rough understanding of how scripts should be structured, how lines should be delivered, how different shot compositions convey certain subconscious messages, and so on. These are the standards by which we judge whether a movie is good or bad, and these are the rules that filmmakers can bend or break, thereby conveying some artistic statement or eliciting an audience reaction in a way that is instantly understood, if only subconsciously.
We know all of this. After so many lifetimes of being immersed in domestic cinema, its rules and standards are so deeply ingrained that we tend to take them for granted. Which is a huge part of what makes foreign films so tricky.
And of course I’m not just talking about subtitles. Onscreen text can’t explain every inside joke and reference. There are no footnotes to explain mythical allegories or historical callbacks. Just to name one example, I don’t care if someone sits me down and explains to me precisely what the difference is between a raccoon and a tanuki, I’m never going to understand it as well as someone who grew up with the folklore.
Some things just don’t translate. So, for instance, this is how a European film can get away with languid pacing that would get an American movie crucified. Or maybe it really is just a bad movie with awful pacing. It’s not always easy to tell when you’re dealing with different standards.
This brings us to The Mermaid, the latest film from prolific multihyphenate Stephen Chow (still best known in the States for Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle). This picture bears distinction as the highest-grossing movie in the history of China, which is quickly growing into the world’s largest film market. Given that Hollywood studios have recently been falling over themselves to make China happy (to the point where a Chinese company recently bought a majority stake in the upstart Legendary Pictures), you’d think this movie would be all over the place in America. Yet it’s virtually unheard of, with a tightly limited release.
And to be entirely honest, I have no idea what mainstream American audiences would make of this movie. I don’t mean to say that it’s bad or good, and God knows I couldn’t tell you how the film works to a native Chinese audience. But from my own ignorant American perspective, this one was just plain weird.
To wit: The movie opens with a tourist trap museum run by a flimsy sham artist. It’s ostensibly a museum about ancient biology, but the exhibits are all transparently fake and anything we learn about mermaids from him is directly contradicted by the mermaids themselves later on. The museum plays absolutely no role in the plot, and nobody we meet in the museum ever shows up again, aside from a brief throwaway gag at the very end. And perhaps most importantly, every single joke in this scene is heightened to such a cartoonish degree that it’s impossible to think of these characters as human beings or to take anything onscreen seriously.
If this was an American film, any sensible moviegoer would’ve walked right out of the theater and asked for their money back after seeing such a senseless and annoying plot dogleg. But it’s a Chinese movie, so it’s… okay, I guess? Seriously, how am I supposed to react to this?
That disposable prologue aside, our stage is set in the marine wildlife reserve of Green Gulf. However, after a new deep sea sonar technology drove away all the marine wildlife, Green Gulf has been put up for auction. The pristine real estate is purchased by Liu Xuan (Deng Chao), a self-made trillionaire playboy, for the purpose of commercial development. Shortly afterward, Liu finds another gorgeous groupie (Shan, played by Lin Yun), who hassles Liu until he agrees to go out with her.
What Liu doesn’t know is that Shan is actually a mermaid, one of many who’ve been driven from their home in Green Gulf. In order to shut down the sonar devices and get their home back, Shan was sent to seduce and kill Liu. Except that Liu is genuinely taken with this young woman who claims no interest in his money, Shan is such a naive and insecure young woman that she falls for his affections, and you can see where we’re going with this.
It’s a laughably predictable plot, driven forward by characters allergic to subtlety. That said, the actors chew so much scenery and the film is so overwhelmingly cartoonish that it’s really quite funny to watch. If the goal was to make a film that’s funny in a braindead and juvenile way, then mission accomplished.
…Kinda. We’ll get back to that.
Kudos are also due to all the creativity and effort on display. I was especially fond of the mermaid culture we’re shown, and all the clever ways that Shan gets around on land with her “legs” fused together. And of course, the movie is loaded with so much crap flying around that it demands to be seen in 3D. Granted, the CGI is nowhere even close to lifelike, but then again, neither is anything else in this picture.
In summary, I figured that this was made as a family picture, deliberately broad and over-the-top in such a way that it’s kid-friendly without completely alienating adults. It was also quite clearly made as a film with an environmental message, though the central romance at least had enough heart to temper the painfully blunt moral.
I really thought I had this movie pegged. But then came a protracted joke involving cooked octopus. The whole scene was as exaggerated as anything else in the film, which only served to make it so much more grotesque. I got the distinct feeling that the movie wanted me to laugh, but I would’ve felt ashamed of myself if I had.
And that’s nothing compared to the climax, in which we clearly see dozens of mermaids — quite possibly the last of their species — getting brutally slaughtered en masse. I get that dark material in a family picture is nothing new, but this was some seriously graphic and bloody shit, with a dark and foreboding score to match. Aside from the typically overblown presentation, I couldn’t reconcile any of this with the childlike simplicity seen in the rest of the movie.
And again, the fact that this is a foreign movie introduces so many variables. Do the Chinese have different standards about what constitutes “kid-friendly” entertainment? Is this sharp change in tone a regular thing in Chinese cinema? Is comical overacting the norm for Chinese actors? Is there some reference I’m not getting, does the film just suck, or is it my own preference? It could be any or all of the above, who knows?
Strictly from my own perspective, The Mermaid seems to have a huge problem with tone. Everything about the movie is so impossibly overexaggerated that the film is bouncing off the walls when it’s light, and woefully depressing when it’s dark. But the film so thoroughly commits to Sparkle Motion that it often makes the humor that much funnier, the romance that much more poignant, and the environmental message that much more sincere (and simplistic).
I honestly don’t know if it fits perfectly in the context of Chinese cinema, or if it really is just a weird little movie. But at this point in the calendar, when we’re only just now shaking off the January/February doldrums, even a little bit of oddity and novelty can go a very long way. Definitely give it a look and see if it’s your thing.