'The Mermaid' Review: Confidently funny with a heart
The Mermaid opens with a gag sequence that seems irrelevant to the film’s story but whose irreverent humor is expected from a Stephen Chow comedy.
In a run-down hovel that also functions as a sham museum of nature’s oddities, an enterprising scam artist lazily tours a horde of disinterested kids through his collection of freaks. Of course, everything’s fake. The dinosaur’s a petrified gecko. The saber-toothed tiger’s a dressed-up pet dog. The mermaid’s anything but beautiful and alluring. In this China, people are poor, desperate, and willing to do everything for a buck.
The film cleverly cuts to where the story begins, inside a luxurious bidding hall where Liu Xuan (Chao Deng) has just bought a pristine cove that he plans to reclaim for his real estate empire.
To celebrate his win, he throws a party at his mansion. As opposed to the opening scene, the next sequences expose the grossly ostentatious lifestyle of the upper crust. Guests arrive in sports cars, rare vintage vehicles, and jetpacks. Beautiful women crowd the pool area. This is also China – where some are rich, wasteful, and willing to do everything for more bucks.
A rowdy parable
Part of that everything Liu Xuan is willing to do is the destruction of most marine life in his newly acquired cove. The cove however is home to mermaids who are also willing to do everything to survive. They send the prettiest of their kind, naïve and taciturn Shan (Yun Lin), to seduce the seemingly heartless billionaire and lure him so that they can have their revenge.
Chow doesn’t hide his objectives. He doesn’t need to. The film isn’t embarrassed of how obvious its slogans are, or how corny its pertinent message is shaping up to be. There is more to the film than its brandished advocacy. This is top-notch entertainment.
On its face, The Mermaid is a modern-day parable about the dangers of exploiting the environment. The first images the audience sees are real footage of the sea being ravaged. Right from the start, the film makes it clear that there is a moral to all the madness, that amidst the film’s seemingly chaotic display of raunchy and morbid gags and jokes, there is an urgent point that has to be made.
Zany as hell
The film is as every bit zany and hilarious as anything Chow has done.
The Mermaid is extremely violent, and a lot of the violence is used for laughs, but Chow takes his cue not from the doltish and humiliating realism of what Hollywood comedy has evolved into with its diet of amateurish stunts and Jackass. Chow is more elegant with his comedic sadism, appropriating cartoonic visuals to soften the blow of the onscreen pain and torture, making them feel more hilariously absurd rather than simply shocking.
The film pushes the envelope when it comes to what is funny. Intriguingly, there is cunning to Chow’s comedy here. They aren’t just for giggles.
In one scene, Octopus (Show Luo), the half-mollusk half-man leader of the mermaid gang, disguised himself as a teppanyaki chef and mutilates himself, ending up serving his tentacles for lunch. The sequence is gory, brutal yet satisfyingly ludicrous, with Luo comically exaggerating his reactions to match his self-torment. However, despite the blatant and guffaw-inducing antic, the sequence also reflects the extreme lengths the victims are willing to take to remedy their situation.
In the film, the fantastic and often silly characterizations go hand in hand with emotional heft. There is a scene in The Mermaid that rivals the moral resonance of the famous scene in Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove where the sea becomes crimson red after Japanese fishermen lure dolphins to massacre them. The Mermaid would not have the same impact if it didn’t exaggerate the desperation of its characters. It just so happens that Chow’s manner of exaggeration teeters towards hilarity.
The Mermaid however is not just concerned about the environment. It is also concerned with China, and how its infatuation with capitalism is endangering its virtues. It satirizes the immense disparity between the country’s filthy wealthy and filthy poor, as can be seen with the drastic change in tone between the opening gag set in the fake museum of oddities and the grandiose and excessive party of Liu Xuan that is held in his lavish mansion.
It mocks the exploitation, depicting the country’s top entrepreneurs as grossly greedy, amoral and out of touch with reality, while their impoverished victims are left in the margins, suffering and unable to fight back. In a way, Chow has crafted an underhanded lampoon of what China has become – a selfish giant that deserves a drastic wake-up call.
Sure, The Mermaid is loud, crass and crazy, but there are truths in the film that are sure to remain once all the laughter dies down. – Rappler.com
*viewers can catch the film at Megaworld Lifestyle Malls.
Francis Joseph Cruz litigates for a living and writes about cinema for fun. The first Filipino movie he saw in the theaters was Carlo J. Caparas’ 'Tirad Pass.' Since then, he’s been on a mission to find better memories with Philippine cinema.