How This Wildly Bizzare Chinese Mermaid Movie Broke Box Office Records

Stephen Chow's nonsensical film "The Mermaid" made over $431 million in China alone. The rom-com plot features a nuanced commentary on environmental awareness.

Stephen Chow is on a roll. In the last 3 years, The Hong Kong-born actor/director has written, produced and directed two of the highest-grossing films in Chinese box office history: 2013’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons and this year’s The Mermaid (美人鱼/美人魚). In fact, less than two weeks into its initial holiday weekend release (for Chinese studios, the Chinese New Year is comparable to the 4th of July, Thanksgiving or Christmas), The Mermaid had earned almost 2.5 billion CN¥ (420 million USD), making it the most financially successful Chinese film of all time. 

The Mermaid is a rare Chinese blockbuster than has made inroads into the American market. It helps that Chow is something of a recognizable name to Western viewers. His earlier directorial efforts Kung Fu Hustle was distributed in the United States by Sony Pictures, and went on to become the highest-grossing foreign film of 2005. However, The Mermaid’s greatest success Stateside has not been in traditional theaters, but at home. Netflix began offering The Mermaid to subscribers to its streaming service in May, and has proven so popular that it has since been picked up by a la carte online video providers such as Amazon, Apple (via iTunes) and Google (via Google Play). The Mermaid currently enjoys a 93% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes—higher than Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Deadpool, two of the biggest Hollywood movies of the past year. 

A Chinese fairy tale 

What makes Chow’s movies such remarkable successes, however, is that they make few, if any, concessions to Western sensibilities. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (which will be followed by a highly-anticipated sequel in 2017) is an adaptation of an epic adventure that has been popular in China since the days of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) but remains all-but unknown to most English readers. And The Mermaid actually reverses a trend common in Chinese cinema. Rather than emulating popular Western genres such as the action film, historical drama, or superhero franchise, The Mermaid is a distinctly Chinese—and 21st Century—retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Little Mermaid

Some American viewers may find that The Mermaid reminds them a little of Splash!, the 1984 fantasy comedy that launched Tom Hanks’ career as a Hollywood leading man. The plots of both films are similar: human male falls in love with a mermaid, with complications ensuring. But The Mermaid is more than a high concept romantic comedy. The film’s titular mermaid, Shan (珊) makes the journey to land on behalf of her fellow merpeople. Their habitat is being threatened by a Liu Xuan (刘轩), a self-made trillionaire real-estate developer who has plans to build an island theme park in the merpeople’s Green Gulf. The result of his plans has been ecological devastation. Shan has been instructed to seduce and then assassinate Liu Xuan. As they spend more and more time together, however, true affection grows, and these characters become more dimensional and capable of defying the audience’s expectations. For all his apparent sophistication and wealth, Liu Xuan has a terrible case of imposter syndrome, and Shan, far from being a stereotypically sweet and naive princess, must withstand a severe test of her loyalties. 

Lost in translation? 

Many Western critics have expressed some surprise at what they consider the overt politics of Chow’s film. David Ehrlich, writing for Slate, even described The Mermaid as a “message movie” and “a broad allegory for environmental negligence.” How much of The Mermaid’s apparent socially conscious tone a product of Western perspectives and priorities? In a recent interview, lead actress Lin Yun downplayed the idea that The Mermaid offers a specific critique of capitalist exploitation of natural resources or wishes to participate in conversations regarding climate change. “It’s not only about the environment alone, it’s about life.... You have a lot of life on this earth that is not only human beings, and we are all a family, globally, every single type of existence.”

Less frequently mentioned in reviews of The Mermaid is its place within Chow’s own filmography. Bill Borden, producer of High School Musical and a close observer of China’s film industry, explains Chow’s popularity in terms of his “cultural sensitivity.” “The Chinese love their culture, and they love to see it onscreen… he has a million little jokes and funny nuances in his movies that you just won't get if you're not Chinese." Case in point: The Mermaid is full of cameos ment to delight a Chinese audience, from fellow director Tsui Hark to comedians Kong Lianshun and Bai Ke, sudden celebrities thanks to the runaway success of their Youku-produced web series Surprise.

That said, Chow’s Chinese identity is a complicated subject. Very much a filmmaker who came of age during the Hong King boom of the 1990s, Chow has developed his own comedic style, one that is much more reliant upon a stylized performance, make-up and costuming, and special visual effects. While the physical humor is his films may remind some of the classic slapstick to be found in the films of Charlie Chaplin (an influence Chow has acknowledged on more than one occasion) and Buster Keaton, Chow’s love of puns and other forms of wordplay are not so “universal.”

In fact, Chow’s surreal sense of humor can be extremely difficult to translate. As Martain Tsai notes in his review for The Los Angeles Times, “[t]he subtitles regrettably don’t let the English-speaking audience in on some of the jokes, such as when characters take Chinese figures of speech literally.” If that sounds cartoonish to viewers whose comedy touchstones are Adam Sandler and Melissa McCarthy, it will feel entirely familiar to anyone with some knowledge of conversational Mandarin, or who was raised on episodes of Family Guy.

"Mo lei tau" = Nonsensical Humor

So personal is Chow’s sense of humor that it goes by its own name: “mo lei tau” (無厘頭). In Cantonese slang, the phrase means, approximately, “makes no sense.” In practice, as Chow’s films demonstrate, it has come to describe how “anything goes." Chow will mock anyone and anything, and take virtually any risk to achieve a laugh. The most popular character in The Mermaid has proven to be a dreadlocked, half-octopus merman played by Show Luo. “Mo lei tau” may have it roots in the colonial experience of native-born Hong Kong residents leading up to the 1997 transfer of sovereignty, but such has been its cultural significance that Chow’s catch phrases have become part of the vernacular all over China. Chinese film scholar La Frances Hui notes that “You are talking!” (你講嘢呀!), often heard in Chow’s films, has become the customary response to any spoken statement deemed unnecessary, irrelevant, and dismissible.”

Stephen Chow’s winning streak could not come at a better time. Despite The Mermaid’s shattering of previous box office records, ticket sales are down, and observers see a perhaps cloudy future for China’s film studios. Perhaps these most recent disappointing returns are just evidence of industry growing pains. Perhaps China will become the largest film market in the world in 2017, as projected. Either way, Stephen Chow and his unique mix of absurdity and sincerity will play well in movie theaters across the mainland. His films are too entertaining, too clever, too imaginative and too attuned to China’s emerging sense of itself and its position in the world not to continue being wildly popular.

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