A character dies from laughing within the first ten minutes of The Mermaid. I have a whole review to go, but honestly that right there sums it up pretty well.
At its core, The Mermaid follows the Dances with Wolves/Avatar narrative tradition in which two people from opposing, warring sides fall in love. A mermaid is sent by her mermaid crew (including one human/octopus hybrid) to assassinate a businessman who is poisoning their waters. She falls in love with him instead. The man has a change of heart and must protect the mermaids (and human/octopus hybrid) from the very people he once represented. You’ve heard the story before, but Stephen Chow takes this familiar structure and packs it so tightly with his his own trademark style that it becomes virtually unidentifiable.
This will sound like an impossible statement, but never before has a Stephen Chow film featured quite this much zany, madcap comedy. From the moment The Mermaid begins, Chow hits viewers with a barrage of Looney Tunes insanity that doesn’t let up until the surprisingly solemn third act. The higher ratio of jokes, gags, and prolonged comedy set pieces means some lack deeper setup while others don’t land at all. This might not be Chow’s funniest film, but it definitely stands as his most hell-bent attempt to achieve that effect.
And that’s not to say it isn’t funny. It’s hilarious. There’s a repeatedly botched assassination attempt early on that not only meets the escalation of Kung Fu Hustle’s famous “knife throwing” scene but exceeds it. Chow often manages to find amazing ways to mix his cartoon violence with just enough real sting to have an edge. That’s on display here during a sequence in which Octopus (as far as I can tell, that’s his character name), has to beat, chop, grind, and sear his own tentacles while posing as a human chef. It’s gross yet amazingly funny.
The higher quotient of comedy antics isn’t Chow’s only departure from tradition in The Mermaid. For one, this doesn’t lead up to someone suddenly having massive superpowers. But more importantly, Chow uses the film to send a serious message about protecting the environment from big business and greedy, soulless individuals among the ruling class. Chow’s interrupted comedy for real violence before. Here when he does it, however, it’s to make a point. Shit hits the fan during The Mermaid’s third act, and given the very specific wacky tone preceding it, the execution carries real shock.
Chow’s changing over the years, and I’m still sad he doesn’t appear in his own films anymore. Nevertheless, you can see how this became China’s biggest movie ever in just three weeks. It’s an entertainment dynamo. Why it didn’t get a wider release here baffles me, but if you have a chance to see it on the big screen, don’t sleep on it.