Any time Hong Kong’s merry misanthrope Stephen Chow Sing-chi makes a new film, it’s a reason to sit up and take notice. Since transitioning from actor to director in 1993 (Flirting Scholar with Lee Lik-chi) he’s rarely had a misfire, and his signature brand of irreverence and wordplay — a genre known as mo lei tau or “nonsense” humour — has made him a favourite in Hong Kong. For many filmgoers, Chow can do no wrong, as evidenced by the massive box office success of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. Between them those films grossed well over HK$100 million and were showered with awards all around the world.
Chow’s one misstep was the condescending CJ7 — Chow, children and aliens don’t mix well — but he soon returned to his comfort zone with Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. Every step of the way during his career as an auteur, Chow’s star has continued to rise in Mainland China. His latest film, Mermaid, has put an exclamation point on that. Since its release on February 8, Mermaid has grossed over US$400 million to become the biggest box office hit in the country’s history (its gross in Hong Kong is HK$43 million and counting).
The success of Chow’s ecological fable could be seen as a bit of an enigma, given its blatant criticism of unchecked development and environmental recklessness, but then again Chow has played it cagey. Mermaid begins with a bidding war for some land in Green Gulf, an almost ephemeral place that could just as easily be somewhere in Hong Kong as on the coast of Guangdong. The unspecified nature of where the action unfolds (the police look like they’re Mainland cops, but the Chinese subtitles refer to them with the general ging chat, not the mainland-specific gong an), which allows Chow to play fast and loose with the idea of place, making it both universal and unique. Hong Kong’s landfill controversies and China’s environmental troubles are well documented, and so no matter where you’re watching from, Mermaid is relevant. That could be the point too.
Chow plays with time in Mermaid as well. Is this now or the future? A gruesomely hilarious opening salvo at a marine life museum is an absurd, grotesque parody of our collective willingness to fondly remember what we’ve destroyed. The mythic mermaid on display for a sceptical public is a middle-aged, pot-bellied man in mermaid drag crammed into a filthy bathtub. It has to be seen to be fully understood.
That sequence sets the tone for what’s to come, which is the Chow viewers have come to know and love. A developer, Liu (Deng Chao) snaps up the land for an exorbitant amount of money and proceeds to make plans for lucrative developments, going into a partnership with a rival, Ruolan (Kitty Zhang), who can clear the water of any lurking dolphins and get Liu off the conservation hook. What they don’t realise yet is that a colony of mer-people are living in a shipwreck in Green Gulf – though perhaps dying would be a more accurate way to describe their situation. Convinced developers like Liu are the source of their illnesses. The colony tough guy, Octopus (Taiwanese pop star Show Luo) tasks the innocent mermaid Shan (Jelly Lin in her debut) with seducing Liu and then assassinating him. Following the dictates of one of the oldest stories in the book, they fall in love. She can’t kill him and he is reformed.
Even though Chow and his eight co-writers have hung their comic messaging on a fairly rote narrative construct, it does little to detract from the film’s sneaky appeal and pithy, timely themes. All of Chow’s trademarks are accounted for, including a snarky peanut gallery and verbal acrobatics (Cantonese speakers will be at an advantage here). He’s helped along by a game Lin, who fulfils the role Zhang (CJ7), and actresses like Shu Qi (a co-star in The Lucky Guy) and Cecilia Cheung (King of Comedy) have played in the past: that of the naïve and beautiful ingénue that propels the story (and who Chow made stars). Viewers weaned on Weta Workshop will find the special effects kitschy, if not outright bad, but the fantastical comedy gives them a charming Ray Harryhausen sheen. Effects, after all, are meant to serve the story, not be the story.
Mermaid isn’t perfect. Chow has always fought to keep the vaguely misogynist streak in his work under control, and his female characters are once again subjected to all manner of indignity (Lin) or are reduced to jealous harpy tropes (Zhang). But much of that is overwhelmed by the fundamental darkness that underpins the narrative. Octopus is at the centre of a sushi preparation gag that effortlessly toggles between horror and comedy, and the film’s final chase is truly heart breaking. Fans of Chow will be pleased to see him back on form, and newcomers curious about the man whose film beat Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the Chinese box office couldn’t hope for a better introduction.
Now showing, Rated IIA; running time 95 minutes