One of the films showing at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival became the highest-grossing film in China and symbolizes a turning point in the way the Chinese are viewing environmental issues.
However, you might not expect it to be the tacky rom-com about mermaids. Directed by Stephen Chow, The Mermaid is filled with cheap comedy, follows a pretty standard storyline, and delivers a clear message that human avarice is destroying the earth.
The most immediately striking aspect of the film is it’s bizarre sense of humor. It’s often childish in a Tom and Jerry kind of way; for instance, a cork from a bottle of champagne hits a button on someone’s jet-pack and sends him flying, the token wise elder of the mermaids falls asleep in the midst of a powerful speech, and glasses and bulbs burst to the sound of shrill singing. Certain jokes, such as the mispronunciation of “Madonna” as “McDonald’s” only really make sense within the context of Chinese language and culture, which is a reminder that comedic taste is culturally specific. But even objectively, the comedic moments add nothing to the plot and are inserted haphazardly, as if they were afterthoughts. When they’re excessively long, they can be awkward distractions from the plot, such as the unnecessary jokes about cooking and eating the octopus man’s tentacles.
But cheesy comedic relief is perhaps necessary to spice up The Mermaid’s fairly predictable plot: it tells the classic tale of a man’s sudden encounter with a pretty, bubbly, quirky girl who brings meaning and true happiness into his life. What makes The Mermaid a bit different is that the man is an avaricious business tycoon named Liu Xuan, while the “manic pixie dream girl” is a mermaid named Shan sent to kill him for his crimes against the environment and thus the mermaid population. As it always goes, the two fall in love, which means that Xuan’s harmful reclamation project and the Shan’s assassination plan both disintegrate by the end of the movie, imparting the cliched but valid theme of “love cures all.”
The Mermaid is also driven by themes that criticize capitalistic greed and bring awareness to environmental issues. Through businessman Liu Xuan and his wealthy colleagues and competitors, the film shows that money is a social construct that doesn’t buy real happiness. Xuan’s endless pursuit of money turned him into a cold, superficial man, and lovers and friends only wanted his money. Not until he fell in love with the pure and naive mermaid Shan, who has no interest in money, did Xuan find real happiness and discover what truly matters in our world. Mermaids also serve as anthropomorphic representations of nature in general, offering a more accessible way for viewers to sympathize with nonhuman victims of environmental degradation. From using sonars that kill sea creatures for a land reclamation project to massacring mermaids for their DNA, the environmental damage that is shown in The Mermaid is cruel and unrealistic. However, it’s a hyperbolic way of conveying the message that it isn’t right to harm our shared planet for the sake of making money.
The film itself is messily written, choppily shot, lackluster in acting, and ordinary in plot, but the significance of The Mermaid lies in the unlikely ability for a film containing these themes to succeed on such a grand scale in China. China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, yet until recent years, both the Chinese government and people have generally adopted an apathetic attitude towards environmental conservation, relative to other industrialized countries. Though the central government appears to issue pretty strict environmental regulations, the enforcement of these regulations by local governments is inconsistent due to their greater interest in economic growth, which the regulations can hinder. Likewise, although the younger generations are beginning to understand the gravity of the environmental crisis, Chinese people on the whole have often prioritized economic gain over environmental conservation, which is partially a result of government censorship.
So, the fact that a film which clearly states that protecting our environment is more important than money was able to pass the strict censorship of the Chinese government and become widely embraced by the Chinese public is a huge indicator that attitudes towards environmental activism are changing. As Shan asks Xuan, “If the world doesn’t have a single drop of clean water or a single breath of clean oxygen left, what do you want the most?” Judging by the popularity of The Mermaid, it seems that in the minds of the Chinese as well as the entire global consciousness, it’s finally sinking in that the answer is definitely not money.