Easily the most delightful comic fantasy in Chinese-language cinema since his own “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons” (2013), Stephen Chow’s “The Mermaid” defies the time-worn nature of its material, concocting pure enchantment with the director’s own blend of nutty humor, intolerable cruelty and unabashed sweetness. Like an ecological “Lust, Caution,” this contempo fairy tale about a mermaid who falls for the evil developer she’s been sent to seduce and assassinate is strikingly relevant to China, beset as it is with myriad environmental crises. The film has already broken mainland opening-day records, and is sure to do swimmingly at home and on foreign shores.
The screenplay by Chow and eight other scribes is not wildly original, but keeps springing minor surprises and Chow’s patented smart-alecky dialogue. As with his other directorial works, notably “The God of Cookery” (1996) and “Kung Fu Hustle” (2004), Chow sneeringly pushes past the limits of decency and humanity in his ill treatment of his characters, suggesting an innate misanthropy that at times sits uncomfortably with his exuberant merrymaking and often black-and-white morality. Likewise, the longstanding misogynist streak in his work shows no signs of abating: Newcomer Jelly Lin joins a long line of gorgeous femmes like Karen Mok, Vicki Zhao and Shu Qi who are made to undergo repulsive image makeovers, then subjected to physical and mental abuse, though Lin’s performance proves winning enough to prevail over these obstacles.
Nostalgically harking back to Chow’s pioneering “mo lei tau” (nonsensical) comedic antics, the film begins with a tour of the “Museum of World Exotic Animals,” somewhere off the coast of Guangdong province — a dive that seems to have frozen in time with its grotesquely fake exhibits, including a “mermaid” that’s a dead ringer for a salted mackerel and a museum curator who rehearses a freak show in his bathtub. This may seem like a narrative non sequitur, but it does reinforce, albeit bizarrely, how badly the animal kingdom has been depleted.
Self-made tycoon Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) spends a fortune to acquire Green Gulf, a dolphin sanctuary that’s officially protected from any kind of land development. To push ahead with his reclamation scheme, he hires marine biologist George to chase out all ocean life forms, using sonar devices that cause them unspeakable pain. Ruolan (Kitty Zhang), daughter of rival property magnate Uncle Rich (helmer Tsui Hark, in a snarky cameo) wants a piece of Liu’s pie and is willing to screw her way into getting it. Meanwhile, at a debauched pool party in Liu’s villa, a young girl named Shanshan (Lin) infiltrates the premises by posing as a member of the dance troupe. Before she’s discovered and thrown out, she coquettishly slips Liu her phone number, not realizing that he almost threw up at the sight of her hideous makeup and clumsy hobbling.
In an ingeniously conceived acrobatic sequence that transports one into the film’s magical mise-en-scene, Shanshan skateboards all the way back to her underwater lair — a sunken ship where her mermaid-kin languish in dirty aquariums, horrifically scorched by sonar. She has been entrusted by their leader, the half-man, half-octopus Brother Eight (Taiwanese pop idol Show Lo, perfect as the air-headed himbo) to kill Liu, as a last-ditch attempt to stop the destruction of their ecosystem. Due to Liu’s skirt-chasing notoriety, Eight is sure Shanshan can seduce him with her “squinty eyes, flat nose, untidy teeth and flat chest” — supposedly bombshell qualities for merfolk.
Ticked off by Ruolan, who puts him down for his low-class taste in women, Liu asks Shanshan out for a date to spite her. Barely able to walk on her tail, she makes bungling attempts to assault him in scenes of side-splitting slapstick — the kind that only Chow can pull off, despite the sadistic abuse he puts his sweet and innocent heroine through. Eight’s attempts to assist her only result in excruciating yet hysterically funny tentacle torture of the sort that makes “Oldboy” look tame by comparison.
It’s a foregone conclusion that Liu, who’s only fooled around with gold diggers, will be disarmed by Shanshan’s unworldliness. Yet their date is strewn with all kinds of pleasurable little twists and the most unaffected chemistry which, even without supernatural elements, is the stuff of fairy tales. No such fantasy can end without a battle between good and evil, so Ruolan and George step up to the plate, working up a storm in a climax that’s as thrilling as it is unhinged in its extreme cruelty.
After playing douchebag types in his own helming endeavors “The Breakup Guru” and “Devil Angel,” Deng is well suited to the role of the loutish nouveau riche with a chip on his shoulder. Here, however, he reins in the hyperactive excesses of the earlier two films to make the eventual opening up of his heart believable, even admirable. And “The Mermaid” provides a fantastic career springboard for Lin, whose wide-set eyes and pouty lips resemble those of a young Shu. Eighteen at the time of the shoot, she is so wholesome and fetching that she defeats the script’s attempt to blight her beauty or make a clown of her.
Zhang, who hasn’t had a meaty role worthy of her forceful presence since her husband Wang Quan’an’s “White Deer Plain,” recovers her mojo by letting herself go, oozing bitchiness and predatory sex appeal. Her character does illogically tip over into total sociopathy near the end, in a reflection of the virgin/whore dichotomy that underscores all of Chow’s repertoire. The supporting actors are energetically insane throughout, and they seem to be having a whale of a time.
The CGI used to render the sea creatures and sets, particularly Liu’s gaudy villa and the macabre museum, exudes the kitschy charm of Ed Wood productions. Overall craft contributions are pro, even if the production values aren’t as lavish as in other effects-loaded fantasy blockbusters like “Mojin: The Lost Legend” or “The Monkey King 2.” But then, it’s increasingly rare to find a mainland Chinese blockbuster in which one is so swept up by the rich storyline and the charismatic cast that the technical aspects don’t even seem to matter.