China’s Box Office Champion and its Saving Power of Silly

By  · Published on March 7th, 2016

It’s been sort of a weird week for the Chinese entertainment industry. On Wednesday, news broke that the China Television Drama Production Industry Association was banning all “vulgar, immoral and unhealthy content” from Chinese television networks. Unfortunately, in the eyes of Chinese censors, this content includes same-sex relationships, as well as any number of more complicated sexual themes (such as affairs and one-night stands). According to pundits, this is just the latest in an attempt by Chinese officials to improve its people’s morality, leaving some of the country’s most popular television shows on the chopping block in favor of greater national harmony.

At the same time, Chinese box office records are proving no match for Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, a fantasy-comedy hybrid about corrupt real estate tycoon and the mythological creature who is sent to assassinate him and falls in love with him instead. On Saturday, Scott Mendelson of Forbes reported that The Mermaid has broken over $500 million at the box office, becoming only the seventh film to gross that much in a single territory (and “the first film to make that half-a-billion-dollar total outside of America”). In the face of such overwhelming success, Chinese regulators have also agreed to extend the theatrical release of the film to an “unprecedented” four months, ensuring that the people of China will have more opportunities to see this film than any other in the country’s history.

I was first introduced to Stephen Chow around the time that Kung Fu Hustle hit American theaters. While I later bought that film on DVD – about as strong an endorsement as a broke twenty-something can provide – I remember later feeling a bit more conflicted about my choice. The more I dug into the movies that Kung Fu Hustle referenced, the more I felt that Chow’s film was something of a watered-down pastiche of Hong Kong and American movie genres. As a college student looking desperately to reinvent himself as an edgy scholar – and becoming in the process, however briefly, a pretentious asshole – I came to the conclusion that Chow’s films were too “silly” to be included in any serious pantheon of foreign cinema.

Of course, the older I get, the more I realize that it was the intermediary choices I made in college that I regret the most. Movie like Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer would have appealed greatly to the younger version of me; it is no wonder then that the very same qualities I looked to reject – goofiness and silliness – are some of the ones I’ve come to admire more than a decade later. Like horror or science-fiction, physical comedy is a genre that can serve as a wonderful infection vector for more complicated ideas regarding society as a whole. And much like the first two, physical comedy can often find itself side-stepping government censorship or cultural boundaries in favor of mass appeal. Stephen Chow is one of the few directors who can make movies that sell in both a government-controlled media and a purely capitalist society. That makes his films a force to be reckoned with.

Viewed through that lens, there’s an awful lot like about The Mermaid. Many of the early laughs come from watching the titular character struggle through a series of outlandish assassination attempts. There’s also a scene where a half-man, half-octopus is forced to cut off his own tentacles and serve them as sushi to maintain his disguise; the facial contortions he goes through in the process are on par with any of the mugging from Chow’s previous films. Chow also includes an impromptu musical number where the two leads burst into song over street meat, each aggressively trying to top the volume and pitch of the other. There are sight gags and physical comedy aplenty in the film, and Chao Deng proves a worthy comedic successor to Chow himself, who stopped appearing in his films with the 2013 hit Journey to the West.

The comedy has to work, because The Mermaid has no interest in hiding its political agenda. The film’s opening credits roll against a series of ecological disasters, with commercial fishermen slaughtering dolphins by the hundreds and marine wildlife being massacred by man’s indifference towards the environment. Chao Deng’s Liu Xuan – a trillionaire real estate mogul who pulled himself up from poverty – is the film’s very own Ebenezer Scrooge, forced to confront the causalities of his own greed by growing to care for those who have suffered the most at his hands. Most of the film is a scathing indictment of the handful of rich people who seemingly run the country; an early dinner party in particular takes on Buñuelian overtones as Liu Xuan pops million-dollar bottles of wine to celebrate a twenty billion dollar land purchase.

And when The Mermaid twists the knife in the final act – featuring a full-on assault of the mermaid hideout by forces no longer under Liu Xuan’s control – its sudden shift towards darkness feels less like confusion created by too many screenwriters and more like a sobering message earned through 75-minutes of lighthearted comedy and melodramatic character development. The graphic depiction of violence serves as a stand-in for violence against actual marine wildlife. Chow and his writers obviously could not write a story of whales and people falling in love, but the mythological nature of the mermaid acts as a stand-in of sorts for Chow and his writers anthropomorphize all manner of sea mammals affected by China’s pollution and overfishing.

That’s the kicker. Chow has spent his whole career making kindly movies that adore the very genres they aim to spoof; when the time came for him to make something with a message, domestic and foreign audiences were far too committed to his brand of comedy to be cynical about the political fable contained therein. If you live in a major city in the United States – or a city with a large Chinese population and a half-smart regional buyer – you may still have a chance to see The Mermaid in theaters. It turns out there’s plenty of room left in the world for silly. We might just need it now more than ever.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)