This past Friday saw the U.S. release of The Mermaid, the latest from director Stephen Chow. After its release in China earlier this month, it quickly became that country’s number one film — not of the week, or of the month, but ever, with $382 million under its belt as of Saturday. That’s not exactly surprising, given its director: Chow’s 2013 historical epic Journey to the West was a smash hit in China, as well. Stateside, however, Chow is better known for two smaller films, the kung fu comedies Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. Hustle, in particular, was a break-out success in the United States, where it earned $17.1 million in 2005.
Forgive all the set-up, but it’s a necessary part of explaining how very, very weird it is that The Mermaid’s North American release—again, February 19th—was announced, via press release, by distributor Sony, on February 18th. You know… the day before. There were no press screenings, which is usual if a studio’s looking to dump something they know critics are going to hate—like Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 or 50 Shades of Black—but not when we’re talking about the latest from a big-name international director already proven to have cross-over appeal. RogerEbert.com’s Simon Abrams points out in his review that “’[t]hree of the four Sony representatives I spoke with didn’t even know that the company was releasing The Mermaid…. I was told that the film had already gotten positive reviews—all pegged to its release in Asia—and that Sony didn’t expect it to interest many people, outside of Chinese or Chinese-American film fans.”
Is anyone else reminded of Snowpiercer, which—after much dickering—The Weinstein Company eventually agreed to release to a smaller number of theaters than originally planned, because they just didn’t think dumb-ass Americans would be into a got-dang for’ner film where you have to read the words on the screen? And then Snowpiercer was really good and got a ton of money on VOD, because it turns out if you make it [and don’t fuck up your release strategy], they will [usually] come.
I was at a Sunday screening of The Mermaid, and it was packed. Packed mostly with an audience of Asian descent, yes, which would play to Sony’s apparent perception of The Mermaid as being only of interest to those “Chinese or Chinese-American film fans.” But I can’t help but think a lot of different people from a lot of different demographics would have wanted to see this film, if only Sony had bothered to tell anyone it was coming out. Because… spoiler alert… it is good.
At its core, The Mermaid is like a fucked-up The Little Mermaid crossed with The Host (the South Korean one, not the Stephenie Meyer one). Liu Xuan (Chao Deng) is a playboy entrepreneur whose company causes serious damage to the environment, leaving a small group of mermaids (and one mer-octopus) convinced that they have no other option but to kill him in order to reclaim their home. The most attractive among them, Shan (Yun-Lin Jhuang), poses as a human and honeypots him, though her mission hits a snag when she develops those pesky feelings things for her would-be target.
If that makes The Mermaid sound like your typical tale of star-crossed lovers… yeah, no. It’s funny, it’s frenetic, it’s filled with over-the-top violence and it’s occasionally just plain twisted, as in a memorable scene with the aforementioned mer-octopus and a hibachi grill. It features my favorite out-of-context line of the year so far: “Even if you don’t respect Batman, you should respect yourself.” There’s a jetpack and slapstick comedy and a scene where Shan and Liu Xuan bond by going on a whole bunch of kiddie carnival rides together. In addition to Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, The Mermaid’s most obvious (and fitting) points of comparison, the film that keeps popping into my head when I think about it… is Deadpool. It’s hilarious and odd and takes absolutely nothing very seriously, though it takes a few things (twu wuv, the environment) sort of seriously. It’s not something that you have to belong to any particular racial or ethnic group to enjoy, though being a bit weird in the head probably helps.
The Mermaid is currently playing in several dozen theaters across the U.S. and Canada, plus the U.K., Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. (And China, obviously.) Check here to see if it’s playing anywhere near you.