'Mermaid' shifts from silly to serious

Show Luo, left, and Jelly Lin in "The Mermaid" (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

The mermaid first appeared in the folklore of the ancient Near East from as far back as 1000 B.C., and has since, for centuries, been an enduring figure in literature, art and popular culture across the globe.

Beyond its role as harbinger of natural calamities such as tempests and floods that threaten human life, the mermaid -- a human-fish composite -- may be seen as well as a symbol par excellence of the interconnectedness between human beings and the rest of creation. This is precisely the crux of the matter in "The Mermaid" (in Mandarin, "Mei Ren Yu"), an exuberant, eco-themed comic fantasy directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Stephen Chow.

Green Gulf, a marine life sanctuary, faces impending doom as a flamboyant billionaire-industrialist Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) acquires it for reclamation and commercial development. To subvert the laws protecting the sanctuary from any kind of exploitation, Liu hires a team of scientists to drive away all ocean creatures from the area using a powerful sonar that causes them agonizing pain and disfigurement.

As we get a glimpse of Green Gulf, we are ushered into a world very different from the glass and steel corporate landscape of Liu's business empire. On the island, a waterfall serves as a curtain-portal to an old, half-submerged ship, a makeshift sanctuary for the members of a hidden community of merfolk displaced and injured by the sonar. The very existence of the community hangs in a balance.

Under the leadership of Brother Eight (Show Luo) -- half-man/half-octopus -- the desperate merfolk set out to assassinate Liu and halt the destruction of the eco-system that is their ocean home. Tasked to carry out this plan is the delicately beautiful mermaid Shanshan (Jelly Lin), who, disguised as a human (awkwardly tiptoeing on her fish tail), is sure to catch the eye of the playboy Liu.

But she is too sweet, too guileless and too clumsy to fit the role of assassin; in a comedy of errors, she tosses and tumbles in her mission. What she does succeed in accomplishing is to win the friendship of Liu. Shanshan's childlike innocence inspires Liu to reconnect with memories of his impoverished youth, allowing him to break out of his ruthless, materialistic existence, to again enjoy the simple joys of life.

"The Mermaid" is aptly titled, not just because of its central protagonist, but because it is a magical, genre-bending pastiche of over-the-top comedy and compelling sociopolitical drama; it's a "mermovie" in more ways than one. With the plot, acting, set design and computer-generated images, watching the first half of the film is like watching a live-action cartoon of sorts. The film's brand of humor is silly and outrageous, but often charming.

In one of the hilarious comic sequences, when Liu reports to the police that he was abducted by merfolk, two skeptical officers come up with ridiculous sketches of what a mermaid might look like while holding back fits of laughter behind their poker-faced expressions.

In another scene, the curator of a bogus mermaid exhibit claims that a mermaid figure on display is a real preserved specimen, only to be exposed by an annoyed guest who points out the obvious -- it's a doll's upper body crudely joined to a piece of dried salted fish.

A dramatic shift in tone marks the film's second half. An elderly mermaid who is the sage-like wisdom figure of the merfolk community tells the story of how, from days past, evil humans driven by avarice and malice desecrated the fragile ecological balance, and continue to do so today.

At a later juncture, Liu himself chances upon real documentary footage of large numbers of herded dolphins swimming in their own blood, the infamous annual custom of dolphin slaughter in Taiji Island, Japan. Unreal in its brazen facticity, the Taiji footage anchors the film to the current global ecological crisis for which China itself, far more than Japan, is implicated.

One of the most damaging repercussions of China's ascendancy as an economic and geopolitical superpower is ecological degradation: reckless dumping of toxic industrial wastes, dangerous levels of air pollution in its urban centers, unsustainable consumption of the Earth's natural resources, unilateral reclamation of coral reefs in the Pacific. Beyond the good-natured humor, "The Mermaid" is a self-reflexive ethical imperative in light of the horrific ecological problems hypermodern China needs to decisively address.

As tensions come to a boil, the investors send armed men to invade Green Gulf with orders to capture and kill the merfolk. The scene is chilling in its violence, the CGI never once interfering in the suspension of disbelief.

The brilliance of director Chow's treatment congeals when it becomes apparent that the sequence is analogous to the Taiji dolphin slaughter shown earlier. There is no respect, no sense of compassion for the sea creatures, who are ensnared, bludgeoned and shot to their deaths.

The representatives of big business fail to see that in killing the merfolk, they kill their own humanity. Human beings are, to begin with, small marine environments in motion.

In his encyclical "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," Pope Francis gets to the heart of the matter when he asserts, "A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings."

"The Mermaid" offers a hopeful utopian vision in response to China's ecological apocalypse. Without volunteering too much information, I can say that, in the cinematic narrative, the restoration of ecological communion is a promise that begins with a change of heart.

Released in China in February, "The Mermaid" has become the country's highest-grossing film ever. If box-office takings translate to action on behalf of the integrity of creation, there is reason to hope.

[Precious Blood Br. Antonio D. Sison is a faculty member at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, and author of the book The Sacred Foodways of Film (Pickwick, 2016). "The Mermaid" will be available on DVD June 5 from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.]

This story appeared in the May 20-June 2, 2016 print issue under the headline: 'Mermaid' shifts from silly to serious .

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