It’s always fascinating to me to see blockbusters from other countries. The Mermaid is the highest grossing Chinese film of all time; that’s a big flipping deal. Apparently the lead actress was chosen out of literally 100,000 people who auditioned for the part. (A number so mindbogglingly large I genuinely cannot fathom the process that was involved, or (if we’re being honest) why the final decision was made). But the fact that this movie was so successful means something. It says something about Chinese moviegoers. But I’m honestly not sure what, because I’m still reeling from what I saw.
The Mermaid has a tone problem. A bad one. I was warned before going into it that it might be needlessly violent, but that was an understatement. This film has some of the most ludicrously brutal sequences ever put in a film purported to be a romantic comedy, and they are genuinely shocking at times. The Mermaid is funny, hysterically so at times (one sequence literally had me in tears), but the comedy is undermined by a fundamental cruelty towards its main characters. Ultra-violence is played for laughs, but I wasn’t laughing.
Not as shocking but also kind of bizarre was the pathetically bad CGI on display. I’ve noticed this basically across the board with big-budget films from any Asian country; they increasingly rely on computers, even when they don’t need to, and it hurts every single aspect of production. So much of The Mermaid is digital, and all of it is awful. That scene I noted that made me cry? It’s the best scene in the movie, in large part thanks to the fact that there’s no distracting digital sheen over everything. Hell, The Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest had more convincing Octopus-Man effects a decade ago. I don’t even understand how that’s possible. If I was a first-year animation professor and a student turned in The Mermaid, I would have failed them immediately.
I wanted to like The Mermaid. I wanted to like it so badly, because in the moments when it works, it works really, really well. But those moments are countered by some truly baffling decisions. But I say all of that knowing that this film was an enormous success in its home country. And so when I ask this, I mean it sincerely: Why? Why is this movie so beloved? Why is it so popular?
I just don’t understand.
[This review is being posted as part of our coverage of the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival. The festival is over, but we’ve still got things to say. You can check out the rest of our coverage here.]
The Mermaid (美人鱼)
Director: Stephen Chow
Release Date: February 8, 2016