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Now showing in Hong Kong

Film review: Mermaid – Stephen Chow’s environmental morality tale

Actor stays behind camera for this well told story of a mermaid clan’s fight against a property developer, which combines romance, comedy and CGI with message about our relationship with nature

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 February, 2016, 11:14am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 February, 2016, 11:16am

Nowhere does the idiom, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” hold truer than in show business, where film studios and stars milk a hit formula dry; just look at Chow Yun-fat and Andy Lau Tak-wah tarnishing the legacy of a bona fide Hong Kong classic by reprising their God of Gambler roles in the terrible From Vegas to Macau III.

Stephen Chow Sing-chi, however, is an outlier. The former king of Hong Kong cinema, whose mo lei tau (nonsensical) comedies in the ’90s and early 2000s are still revered by Hongkongers today, has inexplicably become a recluse (by local entertainment industry standards) over the past decade, working at his own pace on his own projects and all but leaving behind the genre he’s famous for. Despite his name getting marquee billing in this film’s promotional material, Mermaid is the second film in a row in which Chow stays behind the camera, which has to be disappointing to Hongkongers wondering why the beloved actor hasn’t made a real “Stephen Chow movie” since 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle (a monster hit, which makes his shunning of the formula more puzzling).

Having said that, Mermaid is a solid dramedy with heart and, more importantly, a message. This Chinese production tells the story of Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) a young business mogul attempting to clear a recently acquired bay of its marine life for property development. Unbeknownst to him (and the rest of the world), the waters are home to a clan of mythical half-human, half-fish creatures, who send one of their own to kill Liu. Posing as a human, the mermaid (newcomer Jelly Lin Yun) ends up falling in love with Liu.

With real documentary footage of water pollution, dying sea life and the destruction of natural resources spliced into the film’s opening montage, it’s clear from the start what Chow is trying to say. Credit to the 53-year-old star, then, for crafting a morality play that features the CGI-heavy visual effects that Chinese audiences love so much. There are laughs too, so it’s hit and miss: an early scene, of the mermaid clan’s failed attempt to take Liu’s life despite deploying a vast armoury of weapons, successfully evokes the manic shenanigans of older Chow films; other gags, like an overweight male actor dressing up as a mermaid, fall flat. Stephen Chow-style mo lei tau gags only work when Chow is involved.

The film’s Hong Kong version features badly dubbed Cantonese that can be distracting for local viewers, but it’s obvious Chow has a bigger market in mind: the film grossed 268 million yuan (HK$318 million) on its opening day in China, a new record.

Mermaid is in cinemas now