Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Mermaid (Mei ren yu)

THE MERMAID (MEI REN YU) (Stephen Chow, 2016)

Like the mythical half-human, half-fish, THE MERMAID (MEI REN YU) combines two dissimilar species to create something rarely seen. Director Stephen Chow, known best in the United States for SHAOLIN SOCCER and KUNG FU HUSTLE, takes his brand of broad comedy and merges it with social concerns regarding the environment and conspicuous consumption. The transitions between message boosting and silliness can make for some jarring shifts. Opening shots of devastation to land, water, and animals are followed by an over-the-top scene of a fraudulent museum of exotic animals being run out of the owner’s apartment. The result is like alternating graphic portions of the documentary THE COVE with goofy gags. While the beginning and the climactic fight between men and mermaids take some disorienting sharp turns, Chow keeps this unusual amalgamation of moral imperatives and comedic hijinks from becoming heavy-handed.

When playboy businessman Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) purchases nature and wildlife reserve Green Gulf, it does not seem like a sound investment, but he is using sonar transmitters in the surrounding waters to drive away the dolphins and other marine life, thus enabling reclamation that will yield huge profits. In THE MERMAID some of the creatures in the sea, now forced to reside in a rusting freighter, are determined to fight back. The half-human, half-fish population assigns Shan (Jelly Lin) to seduce their nemesis so that she or the others can get close enough to kill him.

Shan’s sweet disposition makes her an unlikely temptress and assassin. As she and Liu Xuan begin to fall in love, it becomes more difficult for her to carry out the order to end his life. Liu Xuan’s business partner Li Ruo-lan (Zhang Yu Qi) has romantic interest in him, so she doesn’t like that Shan appears to have captured his heart and might be changing his mind about development plans for Green Gulf. Although Liu Xuan is gradually becoming aware of the detrimental impact of his actions, half-man, half-cephalopod named Octopus (Show Lo) still desires to eliminate the person responsible for all of his kind’s suffering.

Chow brings a cartoon’s sensibility to much of THE MERMAID’s humor. Shan’s initial attempt to assassinate Liu Xuan with sea urchins or stab him with a crudely made dagger is beautifully choreographed as her actions are thwarted through unseen obstacles and unexpected movements. A riotous scene with Liu Xuan trying to convince the police that he was abducted by a mermaid feels like something out of Looney Tunes with Bugs Bunny as a sketch artist teasing the victim. THE MERMAID gets a lot of laughs out of all the wrong ways to draw something half-human and half-fish.

As a live-action film with assists from iffy visual effects, the film’s comedy sometimes plays as being more sadistic than it might in an animated movie. A romantic spin on an amusement park ride results in Shan and Liu Xuan barfing even as they’re enjoying the time together. Octopus disguises himself as the lovers’ chef so he can kill Liu Xuan but ends up having several of his tentacles seared, chopped off, and ground because the other cooks mistake them for the meal’s ingredients. The pained reactions to the trauma that Octopus tries to hide are very funny even as the comedic violence is made more concrete than is ordinary. Chow demonstrates playfulness as he pushes the humor slightly beyond the limits of what an audience might anticipate. THE MERMAID’s boldness and mix of tones can make for some awkwardness, but the anything goes attitude is responsible for the heights it reaches.

Grade: B

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