Brash tycoon Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) orchestrates a lucrative sea reclamation and redevelopment project on the once-protected Green Gulf coastal area aided by his business partner, glamorous socialite Li Ruo-Lan (Kitty Zhang Yuqi). To secure the environmental seal of approval their company deploys a sonar transmitter to drive all marine life away from the coast. What Liu Xuan does not know is his device is slowly killing off the merpeople who have inhabited Green Gulf for centuries. Which is why winsome mermaid Shan (Lin Yun) agrees to pose as human so as to lure Liu Xuan into the hands of her vengeful fellow mermaids. However mastering life on two legs prove no simple task for the accident-prone Shan. Following one botched assassination attempt after another she finally lands her chance, only to unexpectedly bond with the lonely, conflicted billionaire. Sure enough they fall in love but the danger to Shan's aquatic race still remains.
With The Mermaid Cantonese comedy legend Stephen Chow Sing-Chi broke his own box-office record to once again deliver China's highest-grossing film. As with Chow's previous film, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2012) the actor himself remains strictly behind the camera but substitutes a youthful alter-ego in Deng Chao. His carefully coached slapstick antics evoke Chow's past characterizations of deceptively brash but inwardly vulnerable comic heroes to pleasing effect. Yet the breakout star turn here belongs to smiley, appealing Lin Yun. She delivers a delightful performance as the scatterbrained, skateboarding (!) mermaid with a heart of gold that runs the gamut from big belly laughs to tear-jerking tragedy. It does not hurt that her combination of sensuality, emotional nuance and comedic flair often evoke Chow's last leading lady, Taiwanese beauty Shu Qi. While the verbal puns specific to Chow's brand of Cantonese comedy may not translate as well to a wider audience (e.g. when Shan mistakenly takes the word "chicken" literally, unaware it is a slang term for prostitute), his heavily anime-influenced visual gags transcend the language barrier. Among the hilarious set-pieces Shan's inept attempts to assassinate Liu Xian, the Octopus Man's (Lo Chi-Cheung) disastrous disguise as a sushi chef and Liu's frantic attempts to convince the cops he was abducted by mermaids, raise the biggest belly laughs.
Interestingly The Mermaid rates as Chow's most overtly political comedy since From Beijing with Love (1994). Opening with images of billowing smoke stacks and oil drenched seas the film wears its environmental agenda very much on its sleeve. Chow's film is at once both far from subtle and something of a cop-out since it lets self-made billionaire Liu Xian off the hook. Once Liu sees the consequences of his actions he tries to stand by the merpeople but winds up opposed by the true villains: heartless Japanese and American corporate infiltrators. That said a smoking hot but cold-hearted Kitty Zhang Yuqi, previously the epitome of sweetness and decency in Chow's CJ7 (2008), adds some satirical bite as a psychotic caricature of China's upper class. Ultimately The Mermaid comes across less a satire of materialism run rampant in modern China than a cautionary fable imploring its newly affluent young generation that with great wealth comes great responsibility.
The film retains the dark undertones found in Chow's early comedic fantasies. Its third act quite unexpectedly turns into Avatar (2009) as gun-toting mercenaries invade the merpeople's lair with mass slaughter on their mind. While the visual effects are not up to Hollywood standards, true HK film fans value imagination over technical polish anyway. Indeed the sequence wherein the mermaid matriarch whips up enormous waves with her tail to repel the human army shows Chow has lost none of his crowd-pleasing creativity. Look out for cameos from DJ-turned-actor Kris Wu and legendary director Tsui Hark whose early comedy films were also a significant influence on Chow. The three men re-teamed the following year for Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (2017).