Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle) has made a career out of entertainingly lightweight romantic comedies with vividly imagined action choreography centred around hapless losers made good. While all of these elements are present in The Mermaid [Mei ren yu] (2016), loosely inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, Chow has laced this film with streaks of darkness in support of its strong ecological stance.
Chow puts his cards on the table from the very beginning, opening with a montage of scenes depicting the pollution of the seas and the brutal slaughter of protected marine life (each of which is carefully documented in the closing credits). Having set the scene for his theme, he swiftly changes tone to give the audience what they came for, switching to a comedic vignette in which a dodgy sideshow operator (Yeung Lun) half-heartedly displays his blatantly fake collection of exotic creatures, including a skeleton of Batman (with two chicken wings for ears) and a fake mermaid constructed from a plastic toy and a salted fish. The sideshow promptly vanishes from the rest of the film, apart from a 10 second cameo as the film nears its climax.
The actual plot kicks in with the auctioning of the Green Gulf coastal wildlife reserve, which turns into a bidding war of oneupmanship between unscrupulous corporate billionaires Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) – an egotistical dirtbag womaniser with a lower class background who keeps his own musical ensemble on hand to play his personal theme song about being invincible – and Ruo-lan (Zhang Yuqi) – an unscrupulous high class mankiller who comes from wealth. Ruo-lan’s plans to increase the real estate value of her adjacent properties are foiled when she loses the bid to Liu Xuan, whose company has been using sonar emitter technology to drive away the dolphins so that he can turn the bay into a land reclamation project. After a mutual gloating session with Uncle Rich (a classy cameo performance from legendary Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark) and the eccentric Cheng (Zheng Jifeng) – who arrives by jetpack wearing a skintight leopard-print jumpsuit – Ruo-lan entices Liu Xuan into a mutually beneficial partnership with the promise of a closer relationship.
Unbeknownst to all, Green Gulf is also the haven for a colony of merfolk, who inhabit the wreck of an ocean liner which ran aground long ago. They have been driven into this refuge due to the extreme power of the sonar emitters deployed in the area, which are responsible for causing massive tissue disruption to the local sealife, including some of the merfolk. Led by the dreadlocked Octopus (Show Lo) – who, in contrast to the other merfolk, has a tentacled lower half – they plan to avenge themselves by killing the man responsible. Selecting Shan (Lin Yun) as the prettiest, they split her fins to allow her to walk around and send her off to seduce and assassinate Liu Xuan. Inevitably, after a series of comedic mishaps, they end up falling in love, leading to Liu Xuan’s belated environmental awakening but also invoking Muo-lan’s wrath.
There’s a lot of fun to be had with the merfolk’s base of operations. Shan initially gets around everywhere on a skateboard, allowing her to move more quickly than the shuffling of her flippers stuffed into sneakers would permit. Part of the ship’s hull has been reconstructed into a skating ramp, allowing her to make rapid descents into their base of operations while doubling as a play area for the other merfolk. A tentacle-propelled catapult launches her upwards out of the ship, bouncing safely off a life preserver at the top. Sea urchins are thrown like shuriken and the merfolks’ knives derive from dead swordfish.
Although the romantic aspect of the plot requires a huge suspension of disbelief in order to see Liu Xuan as at all redeemable, Chow manages this aspect fairly well, orchestrating an evening at a fun park which allows both characters to revel in cheap food, bad jokes and worse singing, effectively putting them both off their guard. Liu Xuan’s transformation is too dramatic and sudden to be acceptable in a conventional drama, but it’s tonally in line with the other silliness on display – this is not a film where you should expect intense character arcs of personal development.
The hypocrisy of the corporate elite is effectively mocked via a strategy meeting early on, beginning with a public relations campaign emphasising the business’ commitment to environmental causes before the next item on the agenda, a demonstration of how their new sonic emitters can make goldfish explode. Although Ruo-lan can’t bear to watch this herself, she asks her assistant to take promotional pictures for her personal collection, complete with smiling attendants striking cheesy poses next to the crimson-drenched tank.
The comedy takes a darker tinge when Octopus, masquerading as a chef in an attempt to kill Liu Xuan, pretends that his prematurely revealed tentacles were fresh ingredients. Backed into a corner by his own story, he allows his own tentacles to be cooked, sliced, tenderised and ground while making various grotesquely hilarious faces until he can stand it no more, spewing forth an ink cloud and propelling himself backwards through the window. It’s both wincingly funny and deeply disturbing. This scene acts as the forerunner to a much darker scene later in the film. When Ruo-lan, in full villain mode, mobilises a mercenary strike team to attack the merfolk in their own home, they butcher their victims in a frenzy of violence deliberately evocative of the documentary footage seen earlier, leading finally to Ruo-lan shooting Liu Xuan with three different types of speargun. It’s a shocking shift in tone which adds a level of reality to the violence which I’ve never encountered in Chow’s other work, but it’s an appropriate extrapolation from the film’s subject matter and effectively underlines his pro-environment message. That said, Chow doesn’t abandon the romantic comedy elements entirely, tying off his story with a coda which shows his protagonists to be happy and offers a message of hope for the future.
To conclude on a lighter note, I’d like to give a shout out Zhang Wen and Li Shangzheng for their single scene as police constables trying to maintain a straight face while Liu Xuan reports his abduction by mermaids. Their steadfastly deadpan facade as they troll him with a series of wilfully misinterpreted identi-sketches is delightful, and their steadfast maintenance of a professional mien while stifling giggles is a comic tour-de-force.