The riotously funny "Kung Fu Hustle" was meant to be Hong Kong superstar Stephen Chow’s international breakthrough, but in the last 12 years, Chow movies like "CJ7" and "Journey to the West" have been virtually buried in the U.S., making a token stop in a handful of theaters before slinking off to home video. (It doesn’t help that the charismatic Chow now chooses to stay behind the camera, and hasn’t appeared on screen since 2008.) Chow’s latest, "The Mermaid," broke box-office records in China, but here it’s been consigned to an unpromoted theatrical opening: According to critic Simon Abrams, representatives at its distributor, Sony Pictures, weren’t even aware they were releasing it.
I have confirmed that MERMAID is being released by Sony on 2/19 after being told by multiple Sony reps that they’ve not heard of the film.
— Simon of the Desert (@simonsaybrams) February 16, 2016
The movie doesn’t have a page on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic, and is only listed on the ticketing site Fandango — which acquired Rotten Tomatoes earlier this week — under its Mandarin title, "Mei Ren Yu." Nonetheless, a handful of intrepid critics sought out opening screenings, a few of which managed near-sellouts based on word of mouth alone.
Despite zero promotion tonight’s inaugural screening of Chow’s "The Mermaid" had a near-packed, all-Asian (minus one) house
— Glenn Kenny (@Glenn__Kenny) February 19, 2016
The movie has, at least, been screened for critics in Asia, so there are a smattering of largely enthusiastic advance reviews from Chinese press and trade papers with foreign correspondents. The story of a mermaid sent to assassinate a real estate developer who’s poisoning the oceans, but falls in love with him instead, apparently lays on the ecological parable thick — one reviewer compares it to "The Cove," the Oscar-winning documentary about dolphin slaughter — but still finds time for Chow’s trademark nonsense comedy. The movie seems to be playing in a good number of theaters, for a change, but the chances are it won’t be around for long.
Update: Despite the lack of promotion, "The Mermaid" made over $1 million in the U.S. on opening weekend, with the highest per-theater average of any film in release. (The movie also has Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic pages now, too.) We’ve added reviews from critics who caught a public screening.
Reviews of "The Mermaid"
Maggie Lee, Variety
Easily the most delightful comic fantasy in Chinese-language cinema since his own "Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons" (2013), Stephen Chow’s "The Mermaid" defies the time-worn nature of its material, concocting pure enchantment with the director’s own blend of nutty humor, intolerable cruelty and unabashed sweetness. Like an ecological "Lust, Caution," this contempo fairy tale about a mermaid who falls for the evil developer she’s been sent to seduce and assassinate is strikingly relevant to China, beset as it is with myriad environmental crises. The screenplay by Chow and eight other scribes is not wildly original, but keeps springing minor surprises and Chow’s patented smart-alecky dialogue. As with his other directorial works, notably "The God of Cookery" (1996) and "Kung Fu Hustle" (2004), Chow sneeringly pushes past the limits of decency and humanity in his ill treatment of his characters, suggesting an innate misanthropy that at times sits uncomfortably with his exuberant merrymaking and often black-and-white morality. Likewise, the longstanding misogynist streak in his work shows no signs of abating: Newcomer Jelly Lin joins a long line of gorgeous femmes like Karen Mok, Vicki Zhao and Shu Qi who are made to undergo repulsive image makeovers, then subjected to physical and mental abuse, though Lin’s performance proves winning enough to prevail over these obstacles.
Simon Abrams, RogerEbert.com
"The Mermaid" has many hallmarks of Chow’s working-class-egotist-makes-good style of comedy. Chow may not be playing the (apparently not-so-) exaggerated version of his petulant public person here, as he often does. But Liu Xuan can easily be read as Chow’s stand-in: he’s rich, but "low-class," in the words of Shan’s spiteful, mega-rich rival Ruolan (Zhang Yuqi). Flashy clothes and "Cribs"-style parties, complete with poolside babes and decades-old wine, are the hallmarks of Liu Xuan’s nouveau riche lifestyle. So when Shan shows up, wearing smeared make-up and ugly rubber weights to disguise her fins, everybody knows that Liu Xuan will still chase after her. He’s a phony, as is made apparent by his paste-on pencil mustache. Tony Stark he ain’t. But that’s part of his character’s wisp-thin appeal: he’s instantly recognizable as a fake who nevertheless wants to make good.
Glenn Kenny, New York Times
"The Mermaid" is no ordinary fantastical rom-com though, encompassing as it does weaponized sea urchins, incredibly delicious roasted chickens, man-octopus self-mutilation and other comic oddities. The slapstick is incredible, but that’s only one aspect of the movie’s spectacular humor: The relentlessly absurdist scene in which Liu Xuan tries to convince two police officers that he was kidnapped by a mermaid is probably the funniest thing that’ll play on a screen this year, and maybe next.
Bilge Ebiri, Vulture
"Mermaid" is a very, very funny movie, but its caustic swipes at China’s nouveau riche, combined with its despairing look at the devastation of the country’s environment, suggest a filmmaker trying to find ways to reconcile his buoyant sense of fun with deeper, darker themes. It’s not clear whether Chow has reconciled them, as the film often shifts jarringly between tones, from broad humor to swooning romance, to eco-message movie. (It even has a couple of musical numbers.) But it’s amazing how distinctive and strange Mermaid manages to be, especially given the highly derivative concept — how personal it feels, amid all the absurdist, go-for-broke humor. It deserves to be seen.
R. Emmet Sweeney, Film Comment
"The Mermaid" opened in New York City with no screenings for press and no publicity, despite its incredible success in China. But Chow has never had much luck with U.S. distributors. Miramax cut over 20 minutes out of "Shaolin Soccer" (01) and then shelved it for almost three years (it finally came out in August 2004). Sony Pictures Classics released "Kung Fu Hustle" (04) unscathed, and with a healthy amount of promotion, but that was the last time one of his films received a decent nationwide release. Stephen Chow doesn’t need America, but its multiplexes could certainly use him, as I wish Hollywood blockbusters were half as unhinged and fearlessly creative as "The Mermaid."
Ben Sin, South China Morning Post
The former king of Hong Kong cinema, whose mo lei tau (nonsensical) comedies in the ’90s and early 2000s are still revered by Hongkongers today, has inexplicably become a recluse (by local entertainment industry standards) over the past decade, working at his own pace on his own projects and all but leaving behind the genre he’s famous for. Despite his name getting marquee billing in this film’s promotional material, "Mermaid" is the second film in a row in which Chow stays behind the camera, which has to be disappointing to Hongkongers wondering why the beloved actor hasn’t made a real "Stephen Chow movie" since 2004’s "Kung Fu Hustle" (a monster hit, which makes his shunning of the formula more puzzling). With real documentary footage of water pollution, dying sea life and the destruction of natural resources spliced into the film’s opening montage, it’s clear from the start what Chow is trying to say. Credit to the 53-year-old star, then, for crafting a morality play that features the CGI-heavy visual effects that Chinese audiences love so much. There are laughs too, so it’s hit and miss: an early scene, of the mermaid clan’s failed attempt to take Liu’s life despite deploying a vast armory of weapons, successfully evokes the manic shenanigans of older Chow films; other gags, like an overweight male actor dressing up as a mermaid, fall flat. Stephen Chow-style mo lei tau gags only work when Chow is involved.
Elizabeth Kerr, Hollywood Reporter
Returning to the director’s chair three years after the less than pointed "Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons," Chow’s latest is more in line with the early work that made him a hit at home ("King of Comedy") and earned him a cult following overseas ("Kung Fu Hustle"). With no time for allegory or parable, the fantastical Mermaid delivers its message without a shred of subtlety (and is unapologetic about it) but with considerable charm, wit and darkness to make up for it. Fans of Chow’s brand of misanthropic nonsense can also expect more of the same, highlighted by a handful of memorable sequences, both visual and dialogue-based. That said, Chow’s traditional difficulty with female characters also continues: Kitty Zhang’s Ruolan wants to destroy the mermaids because, bottom line, she’s pissed that her boyfriend has dumped her. Women, right? His penchant for torturing them is alive and well, too, and his reliance on tried-and-true storytelling shows no signs of abating. To be fair, Chow still insists on going pitch-black from time to time: Octopus’ self-mutilating sushi-chef gag is as grotesque as it is hilarious; the mermaids are forced to live in grimy, polluted water with festering open sores; and the final open-water pursuit of Shan is like every gruesome Discovery special about whale poaching, or better yet, outtakes from the dolphin slaughter doc "The Cove." Much of that darkness mitigates narrative predictability to a degree.
James Marsh, Screen Daily
Chow has no interest in subtlety but thankfully keeps his environmental concerns within the film’s narrative. Deng Chao is effortlessly loathsome as the rich kid who only knows how to throw money at problems, but his transformation into an activist for change is believable nonetheless. Newcomer Jelly Lin brings a delightfully quirky demeanour to her literal fish out of water. Shan is beautiful, yet unaware of that fact or how to use it to her advantage. Lin also displays a gift for physical comedy, not least in a sequence where her character attempts to attack Lu Xuan using a bag of sea urchins.
This live-action cartoon finds Stephen Chow ("Shaolin Soccer") elevating a Disneyish set-up — ruthless developer is mollified by the mermaid inhabiting the lagoon he’s plundering — with more of his usual good-to-inspired sight gags. (Much amusement is derived from an attempt to describe a hybrid form to a police sketch artist.) Happily, Chow’s eye for funny faces and presences remains undimmed: with her wonky lipstick and penguin waddle, Jelly Lin’s heroine could halt even the most intensive construction work, though she can’t quite top the prologue’s bearded, pot-bellied mock-merman, who rises from a bathtub like Ricky Tomlinson in Ken Loach’s "Riff-Raff."
Dylan Kickham, Entertainment Weekly
"The Mermaid" is at its best when it embraces the ridiculous, no-holds-barred, farcical comedy that Chow has become known for, thanks to films like "Kung Fu Hustle" and "Shaolin Soccer." But when the farcical elements fade away toward the end, the movie becomes far less enjoyable. Pretty much out of nowhere, we find ourselves not in a silly, spoofy romance, but in a horribly gruesome action movie. The climactic scene is a blood-drenched massacre that feels entirely disconnected from the movie up to that point. And after that, the film shifts into a dramatic romance for one scene between Liu and Shan. Although the content of the scene is touching, it lacks real stakes because the characters and their relationship have been presented as comical for the bulk of the film.
THE MERMAID (Chow, 16) Probably depends on your tolerance for slapstick blockbusters to be absolutely sincere, but I’m a fan.
— Peter Labuza (@labuzamovies) February 21, 2016