Despite being set somewhere in China and featuring non-Hong Kong actors, eco-fantasy-romantic-slapstick-comedy The Mermaid is a true Stephen Chow film. Sure it was shot in Mandarin (the Hong Kong release is dubbed into Cantonese) and there's no cross-dressing dude picking his nose, but the film is filled to the brim with Chow's unique sense of humor, and oozes his pet themes and obsessions from every pore. The film also has an obvious environmental message about how human beings are messing up the ocean but it's handled without proselyting and actually serves the story and characters very well. In every way, Mermaid is a worthy addition to Stephen Chow's beloved library of comedy classics. No, he doesn’t act in it. Get over it.
Mermaid tells the story of Shan (newcomer Jelly Lin), a pretty mermaid who serves as the bait in a honey trap targeting super-rich businessman Liu Xuan (Deng Chao). Liu is the douchebag owner of the Green Gulf coastal area, which was once protected but is now earmarked for development thanks to Liu's shady dealings, not to mention the fact that he employs deadly sonar devices to keep away protected wildlife. Now Green Gulf is eligible for the environment-mucking housing developments of Liu Shan and his business partner, the smoking hot Ruo-Lan (Kitty Zhang). However, unbeknownst to Liu Shan, the sonar affects the mermaids too, and is dooming them to a slow and painful death.
Now confined to a derelict oil tanker in Green Gulf, the mermaids plan to have Shan charm Liu Xuan before dispatching him with prejudice. To get to her target, Shan has modified her tail to fit into human shoes and walk on land, though she can only take small steps like a wobbly toddler. However, she doesn't really get how to entice men; she applies makeup horribly and is clumsy and unconvincing as an object of desire. After a disastrously hilarious first meet, Liu Xuan has no intention of contacting Shan, but he eventually does to spite Ruo-Lan, who's willing to bed Liu Xuan but regards him with disdain due to his humble beginnings. Despite being a powerful self-made billionaire, Liu Xuan will always be "a lowlife" in Ruo-Lan's eyes.
And yet it's Liu Xuan’s lower-class origins that end up bringing him and Shan together, which sets up a romance and then the ultimate conflict: Can Shan go through with the plan to kill Liu Xuan? And how will Liu Xuan react to Shan being a mermaid? The Mermaid doesn't possess a particularly original or complex story. The script features conspicuous swathes of unearned exposition, the story is riddled with plot holes and weak scene transitions, and logic is frequently thrown out the window in favor of narrative convenience. However, the film’s robust cartoonish tone and increasing stakes help to paper over the rough spots. Also, the comedy is consistently funny and surprising; each scene is essentially a successful comic set piece pushing different types of comedy from mo lei tau to situation to slapstick. There are story problems everywhere, but no shortage of laughs.
There's heart too, though it's tempered by Stephen Chow's trademark self-aware romanticism and many laugh-out-loud moments. Chow loosely adheres to Walt Disney's "one laugh, one tear" guideline, though he leans far more on the laughs. When things get too maudlin Chow amps the silliness, like when Shan and Liu Xuan finally share a quiet connection, the film launches into a hilarious musical sequence involving heroic Chinese songs. Meanwhile, the action can get surprisingly dark; there's abundant comic violence that gets bloody, with both Shan and Liu Xuan being put through the wringer for their troubles. The edgy violence dovetails well with one of Chow's familiar themes – sacrificing for love – but it also has the effect of making the audience suffer in exchange for their expected happy ending. Stephen Chow offers you no free lunches.
The performances are effective and in keeping with Chow’s eclectic comic sensibilities. Deng Chao is over-the-top as a slimeball but still manages moments that make him worthy of redemption. As the Octopus, one of Shan's allies, Show Lo is the unsubtle and enjoyable butt of many jokes, while Kitty Zhang oozes sex and condescension with every décolletage-baring step. Promising newcomer Jelly Lin makes for a very sympathetic herione and shows Shu Qi-like qualities with her emotional range and ability to project wordlessly. The cast features a few Chow regulars, but also plenty of newer faces, and as usual Chow chooses his supporting players not for their acting ability, but for their fit in his low-class, low-brow yet high-comedy world. The film isn't great to look at; production design trends towards juvenile and tacky, and visual effects are glaringly shoddy. Considering the effort spent on VFX in past Chow films, Mermaid is a backwards move visually.
Bad visual effects don't keep The Mermaid down though, because the draw is not VFX-enhanced action, it’s Stephen Chow. Besides his unique comedy stylings and the "sacrifice for love" thematic nugget, Mermaid basically features the real Stephen Chow. Deng Chao's Liu Xuan is a not-too-subtle stand-in for Chow, what with his journey from humble lowlife to master of the universe – mirroring Chow’s real-life ascent – and Liu Xuan's mean-spirited behavior and much-mentioned loneliness are obvious pieces of the Stephen Chow personality puzzle too. Maybe it lacks the outward signifiers of his previous works, but on the inside The Mermaid is pure Stephen Chow. It shows us who he is and what he cares about, and is absolute proof of his auteur status. That he was able to put together such an entertaining and representative work while adjusting to the larger China market makes The Mermaid an accomplishment. The film is currently China’s highest-grossing film, so Chow’s effort has reaped rewards. For audiences, their reward is the movie.