Movie Review: The Mermaid: Mei ren yu (2016)
It’s a mix of “Splash” and “Pretty Woman” with a strong environmental message; a Stephen Chow comedy (“Kung Fu Hustle”) whose jokes are either poorly translated, way too broad, or downright bloody; and a romance in which a billionaire becomes a better man through the love of a good woman. Er, mermaid.
Oh, and after only two weeks it’s the biggest box-office hit in Chinese movie history, grossing $419 million.
So it’s not just the U.S. Other people can spend half a billion dollars on crap, too.
Like baby seals
I’ll tell you what I liked about this thing, but first the plot.
As the movie opens, asshole industrialist Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) outbids other asshole industrialists, including his sometime lover Ruolan (Zhang Yuqi, showing cleavage and leg throughout), for a parcel of land on the Chinese coast. Everyone thinks he overpaid since the area is a protected habitat for dolphins. Nope. He planted sonar devices in the water, scattered the dolphins, and now it isn’t. Now apparently he can do whatever he wants.
Then at one of those pool parties for the rich and tasteless, an odd girl, apparently tipsy, wearing makeup as if applied by a six-year-old, clumsily tries to come onto him. He throws her out, but we follow her as she skateboards around town, eats barbecued chicken, and goes to a shack on the coast that, through a series of Rube Goldberg-like devices, leads us to an underground cavern, near an ancient shipwreck, where she, a mermaid named Shan (Lin Yun, or Jelly Lin, a 19-year-old newcomer/hottie), lives with the rest of the mermaid/man crew. They, too, were scattered by the sonar device. Some are dying (sores), and it’s Shan’s job to lure Liu Xuan to the cabin so they can kill him.
That nearly happens after their first real date, but by then the super-innocent Shan is falling for the bastard and dismisses him to save him. Twenty-four hours later, he proposes. Then he finds out she’s a mermaid. For a reason I can’t fathom, he goes to the cops (who laugh at him), tells his board of directors (who disbelieve him), and confides in Ruolan, who not only believes him but has teamed up with a mermaid-obsessed westerner to find, capture and study the creatures. And that’s what they do. While Liu is stuck in traffic (really?), Ruolan’s entire team of mercenaries infiltrates the cavern. And guess what they do? They massacre the mermaids. They take out machine guns and turn the water red with blood. When the mermaids jump onto land to try to get to safety, they’re clubbed like baby seals.
Reminder: This is a romantic comedy.
I don’t know if Chow is making a statement about cruelty to animals, or if this is one of those Chinese things, like eating live monkey brain, that doesn’t quite translate; but it’s not even an anomaly within the movie. Earlier, at a sushi bar, the leader of the mermaid outcasts, Octopus (Luo Shun), has his still-attached limbs skewered, diced and ground up as part of running gag that was painful to watch—particularly since Chow plays it for comedy. But the mostly Chinese crowd at Pacific Place on Friday night got it; as I was wincing, they were laughed along.
Wise and powerful
Anyway, I promised you something I liked about the movie and here it is. At this awful moment of turning the water red, the mermaid matriarch, who has been an occasional fount of wisdom throughout, uses her powers—thrashing her tail like a martial arts weapon—and creates a near-tidal wave that douses the bad guys.
Sure, so on the one hand this is really stupid. Why didn’t she do this before the mercenaries machine-gunned half her people? Why wait for the 11th hour? But of course we know the answer. Because the movies like nothing better than an 11th hour.
But here’s what I liked: In many Chinese movies the elderly are not only wise but powerful. They’re often the most powerful.Does this tradition come out of martial arts, where, even into old age, you can retain power? In the U.S., the elderly are generally portrayed as not only not powerful but not wise, either. It’s one of the things I’ve always hated about western culture: our denigration of the aged; how quickly we dispose of them.
Anyway, there’s a big chase—of Shan—and she’s about to be killed when (11th hour!) Liu arrives to save her. The epilogue is all married bliss and undersea tours. It’s not a bad message for a society that pollutes as much as China’s does. Mostly, though, I liked the granny.
Newcomer Lin Yun (Jelly Lin) treads water in “Mei ren yu” (“The Mermaid”),which is smashing box-office records in China.