Goofiness is an underrated quality in contemporary cinema, particularly in the fantasy genre, which is normally concerned with out-exerting its obviously worn influences at the expense of a true sense of play and imagination. Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid serves as a blessed relief from this tendency, as it’s a fantasy with conviction in itself that doesn’t continually underline its relevance with literal-minded and heavily masculinized faux-seriousness. For the better part of two acts, at least, Chow conjures casual wondrousness.
The film concerns a mermaid, Shan (Yun Lin), who goes undercover as a potential human love interest for a wealthy entrepreneur, Liu Xuan (Chao Deng), so as to kill him for his ruthless pillaging of the ocean, which he’s framed to the press as a reclamation project. Chow opens the story with a narrative non sequitur that establishes the cheeky tone, following tourists as they frequent a museum of oddities that’s composed entirely of inept hoaxes. A “bat man” has ears fashioned from chicken wings, and a mermaid arises out of a bathtub to reveal itself to be a middle-aged man wearing an obviously fake tail, telling tourists that he’s just trying to make a living. This punchline is characteristic of Chow’s direction: setting up ludicrously farcical situations only to lace them with a hint of graceful pathos. Later, when Shan and Liu Xuan are on a date, they spontaneously sing to one another, the goofy exterior of the moment reflecting a deep longing within both parties. It’s the kind of ecstatically earnest moment that one often encounters in classic musicals.
Later, when Liu Xuan discovers Shan’s secret and runs to the police to tell them that he’s been bamboozled by a mermaid, he’s greeted with hilarious incomprehension. Chow takes an obligatory and often tedious fantasy-genre moment—in which the hero has to “explain” the source of fantasy to normative society—and spins a delirious comic routine out of it. The police try to draw the mermaid, and continue to get the relationship between the human and fish proportions off, sketching a creature that’s split vertically down the left and right axis of the body, eventually resorting to drawing something that resembles two faces smooshed together.
This scene embodies the sort of moment that, if staged and performed correctly, can inspire considerable gratitude on the part of an audience, as it represents a way in which the filmmakers can concede the absurdity of a premise as a way of ironically deepening our involvement with it. After all, we want to believe in illusions, because that’s one of the prevailing reasons for patronizing art, and it can be powerfully persuasive to incorporate that very yearning deliberately into the tapestry.
The Mermaid also offers a wonderful visual reprieve from the cumbersomely mechanized aesthetic of so much contemporary fantasy, reaching back to the bold elegance of Frank Tashlin and Gene Kelly’s respective work, among others. Colors are bright and primal, and slapstick routines are staged with Chow’s characteristic mixture of ruthless precision and disarming sweetness. Chow achieves transcendence with the film’s computer-generated effects, emphasizing their fakeness for the sake of stylized poetry, rather than their “realness” (or a conventional facsimile thereof) so as to be taken as a given, as they are in modern spectacles. When Shan launches herself into the sky with her tail, we discern the primitiveness of the effects, which cumulatively gain an emotional resonance over the course of the film, syncing up with the physical struggle of her exertions to evade interlopers.
Unlike Chow’s remarkable Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, The Mermaid isn’t able to sustain its invention through to its conclusion. The film takes a routine turn in its third act, allowing its anger with capitalist amorality to manifest itself in violence, rather than in the giddiness that powers the narrative’s first half. One understands Chow’s instinct, as he uses the violence for theoretical tonal contrast in order to give The Mermaid weight. But the film is more suggestive when it subsumes this anger and empathy into benevolent kinetics, because Chow has already achieved a contrast: between his and his characters’ anger and their brave joyousness of being.