For many Chinese filmgoers, the name of Stephen Chow (周星驰) alone is enough to draw them to the cinema for The Mermaid (《美人鱼》).
The latest film from Hong Kong’s “king of comedy” has had a record-breaking first week, earning 1.79 billion yuan at the box office since its debut on Feb 8. It stands a good chance of replacing Monster Hunt (《捉妖记》, 2015) as the highest grossing Chinese film by this weekend.
Most mermaid films tell the story of love between humans and mermaids, and this one is no exception. But Chow, the director, writer and producer of this fantasy film, weaves the theme of environmental protection into this well-worn storyline. The Mermaid uses its clichéd, fairy-tale format to teach life lessons about materialism, with a splash of Chow’s trademark comedic style.
In recent years, Chinese comedy films have relied on online buzzwords to ingratiate themselves with young audiences. Chow, however, sticks to his unique “nonsense comedy” called “mo lei tau” (无厘头). It’s the same style that established his popularity as an actor in the 1990s, and Chow has since adopted it for his directorial works too.
Clow’s slapstick style is apparent throughout the film. At the beginning of The Mermaid, a group of visitors in a so-called museum of exotic animals are stupefied by the fake exhibits, including a slovenly, middle-aged man with a beer belly and mustache dressed up as a mermaid. When the mermaid Shanshan (Lin Yun, 林允) is sent to seduce and assassinate the greedy tycoon Liu Xuan (Deng Chao), her bungling attempts end up hurting no one but herself.
周式幽默显然贯穿了整部电影。电影开头，一群游客在参观一家所谓的珍奇动物博物馆，他们被里面各种假冒的陈列品惊呆了，这其中包括一个留着胡子，挺着啤酒肚的中年邋遢大叔，他假扮的是美人鱼。当美人鱼珊珊（林允 饰）被派出色诱并暗杀贪婪的土豪刘轩（邓超 饰）时，她笨拙的行动最后没有伤害到任何人除了她自己。
Chow said that The Mermaid represents his dream love story. Scenes like Liu dropping from the sky to rescue Shanshan are sure to become classics, at least in the hearts of Chow’s fans. “My beloved one should be a hero. Someday, he will come to marry me, arriving on rainbow clouds,” said the heroine in another Chow’s film, A Chinese Odyssey (《大话西游》,1995). That film ended with tragedy, to the great disappointment of many moviegoers. Some viewers speculate that The Mermaid was Chow’s attempt to compensate.
While Chow’s fans may feel satisfied by his latest outing, the film failed to win over some critics. “The Mermaid is a mix of rehashed jokes, poor special effects and an old-fashioned, Cinderella-style love story. It does make audiences laugh, but it is also embarrassing,” according to the most-liked review on Douban.
Is Chow’s style out-of-date? That’s a matter of opinion. But so far, millions upon millions of moviegoers have shown their support at the ticket counter.