Reel Deal: 'The Mermaid' is far from normal, but still enjoyable

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China Film Group Corporation and China Film Group Corporation | The Daily Wildcat Promotional poster for Stephen Chow's "The Mermaid."

Today, it’s a rare experience to watch a film without any preconceived notions or knowledge. With the tag-teaming ubiquity of advertising and the Internet, you’d have to be a Luddite to avoid the studios’ promotional hype machines.

I’ve still managed to see trailers and posters for “10 Cloverfield Lane,” a film that was kept so under wraps it didn’t exist to the general public until a month ago when its trailer premiered at the Super Bowl.

The only thing I knew about “The Mermaid” (“Mei ren yu”) is that it had already grossed a ludicrous $500 million alone in its native China since its Feb. 8 release. For some perspective, the next highest grossing film in China is last year’s “Monster Hunter,” which raked in $380 million.

So, my only question before watching the movie was, “What does the highest grossing movie of all-time in China, the second largest film market in the world, look like?”

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And I guess my answer can only simply be, “Not American.”

In an opening sequence whose reason for being is tenuously related to the rest of the film, we begin with a group of slack-jawed teens taking a tour of a knock-off Cabinet of Curiosities.

The sweating, scotch-taped glasses-wearing guide passes off a gecko as a dinosaur, and even claims that he has a live mermaid in his bathroom. When the teens get to the bathtub, the guide emerges from the water, his bulbous body bursting at the seams of a homemade mermaid costume. One of the teens cackles hysterically and then dies from laughing too hard.

Again, this scene barely plays a role in the film’s ovreall plot, but it certainly set the tone that slapstick, over-the-top comedy will be involved, and that a suspension of disbelief will be required.

Now, the actual story at-hand: Man-child playboy trillionaire Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) purchases Green Gulf, a wildlife sea preserve, and uses sonar devices to rid the surrounding area of aquatic life. Unbeknowst to him, or anyone else, the area is home to merpeople, and the sonar has killed many of them off. Comparisons are made to the real-world massacre of dolphins and other marine life, which seem as out of place as a fish out of water.

Well, the surviving merpeople, led by a half-man, half-octopus hybrid (Show Luo), have devised a plan for revenge. They send Shan (Lin Yun), a cute mermaid, up to the surface to seduce Xuan and kill him. Shan wraps her tailfin up in chunky yellow boots and glides around on a skateboard.

As these things tend to go, Xuan and Shan, the mermaid and the human, fall in love. Their courtship, like everything else in the movie, is exaggerated, their “love-hate” emotional dynamic flip-flopping every few seconds.

In one moment, Xuan ditches her and calls her a psycho, and the next, he’s sharing a juicy roast chicken with her and sobbing about how the meal reminds him of his father. The overt bipolarity is hilarious.

The melodrama climaxes in an effects-heavy battle between armed forces and merpeople. Things become dire, in so much as a mermaid comedy with above-average, but not Hollywood-level, special effects can be. The humor comes from the over-the-top situations and artificial, affected nature of it all — but the film is in on the joke. It’s high camp.

“The Chinese love their culture, and they love to see it onscreen,” Bill Borden, a Los Angeles-based producer who served as a consulting producer for the film told “The Hollywood Reporter.” “That's why [director] Stephen [Chow] is so popular: He has a million little jokes and funny nuances in his movies that you just won't get if you're not Chinese.”

I’m not the target audience for this film, so I can only guess at the number of things that flew over my Western hemisphere head.

While its zany camp charm grew thin toward the end (perhaps, again, because I’m not acclimated to this very particular type of cinema), I enjoyed myself.

C+


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