Friday 26 February 2016

Mermaid (aka Mei Ren Yu) 3D

The Chow Sea Girls

Mermaid (aka Mei Ren Yu) 3D
2016 China
Directed by Stephen Chow
UK cinema release print.

Warning: Mild Spoilers

I’ve loved Stephen Chow’s movies ever since I first saw his absolute masterpiece of comedy action, Shaolin Soccer, years ago. I also quite liked his Kung Fu Hustle too, though not quite as much as the former movie. So when I found out that a brand new Stephen Chow movie I’d not heard of was, astonishingly, playing at my local multiplex in Mandarin with English subtitles and that they were, furthermore, showing it in 3D, I knew I’d have to rush to see it as it wouldn’t be there long. So I was glad I at least found out on the Wednesday as I was able to get to the last performance of it on the Thursday.

Mermaid is, frankly, not quite as brilliant as either of the other two movies I mentioned but it is an extremely entertaining and fun movie with engaging characters who you will want to stay with even when, at times, some of the jokes wear a bit thin.

The film details the two main protagonists, a rich and spoiled brat of a philanthropist Liu, played so well by Chao Deng, and the mermaid of the English title Shanshan (or Jelly in the subs?)... played by newcomer Yun Lin, who also does an excellent job. Because of the extreme damage Liu and his new business partner/potential girlfriend Ruolan, played with icy relish by Yuqi Zhang, are doing to the oceans, Shanshan is sent by her king, the Octopus (played hysterically well by Show Luo), to assassinate Liu on behalf of her surviving mermaid friends. Of course, things don’t go smoothly once Liu and Shanshan fall in love and it’s a nice canvass for Chow, who doesn’t act in this one, to put in a load of quite 'over the top' jokes and get maximum comedy out of this set up.

Now, I would be lying if I said that this movie was a non-stop laugh fest... it does mostly try to be but it doesn’t always succeed. However, it is very amusing for a lot of the movie and Chow hasn’t lost any of his timing when the sudden bursts of comic absurdities come and go with that amazing deadpan speed which Chow injected into his earlier films. Yes, sometimes the comic scenes can outstay their welcome in places but they do, continually, surprise and even when they may be considered a little overdone to some audiences, they sometimes manage to leave with a surprise too, which then perks things up and leaves you smiling again.

For instance, there’s a scene where the character Octopus, who has the upper body of a human and the lower body of an octopus (I guess that makes him a mer-octopus then?) is trying to kill Liu but when he finds he’s surrounded by bodyguards, he instead finds himself posing as a cook. He then, to hide his non-human nature and put a stop to the question about the abundance of tentacles laying around the place, has to pretend he was going to cook them octopus by frying, mincing and burning his own tentacles while we watch his comically pained expressions of increasing ferociousness. Alas, this sequence really does go on a little too long but the visual punchline is great... when he’s had enough he sprays the room with black ink and then hurtles backwards through a breaking widow. The extra punchline is that, with completely impossible comic timing, Liu and Shanshan are the only people in the room not covered in black ink, due to being protected by umbrellas which have suddenly materialised from all the bodyguards who happened to be conveniently carrying... um... umbrellas. It’s the extra smile on top of an overlong joke like this which saves the picture in a few places.

There are some points of the picture which are a little too predictable and the jokes fall flat very fast, like the comical jet pack gone wrong scene early in the film... but because the narrative and the little sequences are so quick-fire in their arrival and departure, Chow manages to make a lot of this stuff work very well and if you are especially enamoured of slapstick comedy, you’ll almost certainly be a lot more appreciative of this movie than I... and I liked it fairly well, I think. There are as many jokes that work as don’t and the running time is certainly packed full of bizarre and unexpected scenes, such as the impromptu singing duet between Liu and Shanshan.

The other thing about this movie is that it also has a lot of heart. It’s a film that’s definitely going for a strong statement about man’s harm to the environment, especially to marine life, and it certainly pulls no punches in this subject. Added to real life footage of man’s inhumanity to sea creatures, we have an amazing downer of a scene in the last third of the movie when the real villain of the piece and her henchmen slaughter or beat to a bloody pulp, many of Shanshan’s mermaid friends. Indeed, there’s a beautiful shot of Shanshan, all bloody and beached, near the end that’s absolutely heartrending.

This extra dimension turns the film from being a quick-fire comedy into something which has a little more substance and that, in turn, gives it a little more edge. It makes it more enjoyable and Chow’s constantly roving and cutting camerawork and editing style is a huge bonus... I can’t imagine anybody else getting away with this kind of script and wringing as much cinematic richness from it as Chow does here.

Ultimately, Mermaid isn’t my favourite Stephen Chow movie but it is a pretty interesting one and if you are into Chinese films like this, you should definitely make a point of catching this one while you still can. I’m really glad I saw it and I’ve been haunted by some of the imagery enough since last night to know I’ll try and track down a blu ray of it, if it becomes available with subtitles at some point. A fresh and sometimes funny take on a clichéd but timeless tale, Mermaid is not a film many who are in love with the art of cinema will want to miss. Catch it and reel it in if you can.

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