The Mermaid is now the highest grossing film in China. In only 19 days, The Mermaid has earned 3 billion Yuan ($458 million) at the box office, and it is still going strong.
This success is not surprising because the Chinese love The Mermaid’s director, Stephen Chow. Even before the film came out, “we owe Stephen Chow a ticket“ became a buzzword on Chinese social media. Chow is known for being an accomplished actor and a film director, and Chinese millennials grew up watching his films.
People of all ages are amused by style of humor in Chow’s films, called mo lei tau. Typical elements of the genre, according to Wikipedia, are “nonsensical parodies, juxtaposition of contrasts, improbable and deliberate anachronisms, and sudden surprises in spoken dialogue or action.” This so-called “nonsensical” comedy is particularly associated with Hong Kong cinema, where its popularity rose in the late 20th century.
As expected of a Stephen Chow film, The Mermaid is full of mo lei tau jokes. The titular mermaid, our heroine, has her home threatened by the hero’s company. To her dismay, her attempts to hurt him (and thus prevent the destruction of the ocean) go wrong in spectacular ways, often leaving her injured. In another comic scene, the heroine’s uncle – literally an octopus — tries to find a way to explain why he has multiple arms in a restaurant. In the end, when the chefs gang up on him, he’s forced to beat a hasty retreat.
Humor is not the only thing that makes people flock to see Chow’s films. Besides mo lei tau, Chow has his own way of storytelling. Typically, his heroes are ordinary people. We can understand and support the heroes when they face challenges and truly hope that they can overcome them. Most of his heroes are either poor or they are rich but had a poor life before, but they all have very strong beliefs. This creates a strong emotional tie that resonates with the audience.
In Chow’s King of Comedy, the hero struggles to be a good actor but only gets very small roles. To cheer himself up, he always tells himself, “I am an actor.” Similarly, in Shaolin Soccer, the hero says we are nothing unless we have a dream. In CJ7, the poor dad tells his son “we are poor, but we don’t tell lies and we don’t bully people. We don’t take stuff that doesn’t belong to us. You will study hard and contribute to the society ultimately.” These films portray Chow’s life philosophy and beliefs, which focus on what makes us human.
Spoilers for major plot points of The Mermaid follow.
In The Mermaid, when the hero experiences the suffering he has inflicted on marine life, he adamantly stops the machine and the plan to make money from the abuse of the environment. When his business partners decide hunt down the mermaid in response, he tries to stop them and ends up rescuing her.
Many people have said that The Mermaid is hilarious, but also sad because Chow shows the viewer experiences they can relate to in their real lives. In the movie, the rich manipulate housing prices to gain their wealth; in real life, it is not easy to buy an apartment in China. The film’s depiction of how the humans treat the mermaid and other marine lives reflects the distance that people feel from their natural environment. One friend told me that he only saw a snake once in a restaurant, and that his knowledge about animals comes from zoos or the media. At present, the Chinese people are dreaming of a better environment where there is no air pollution and where kids can see many wild animals or marine life.
Perhaps no moment touched audiences and captured the film’s pathos more than the simple question the mermaid asks: “Hypothetically, if you only had one final minute of your life [or] if the world didn’t have a single drop of clean water, or a single breath of clean oxygen left, what do you want the most?”