Stephen Chow's environmental rom-com about a mermaid, The Mermaid, has just become China's highest-earning film of all time. Since opening a little over a month ago, it's earned 3.2 billion yuan ($500 million), far exceeding Chow's other blockbusters, Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004) among them.
Although the Cantonese comedian-turned-director's trademark "mo lei to" absurdist comedy has made him wildly popular in China, the chart-spiking popularity of The Mermaid somehow demands further explanation. As of this writing, The Mermaid has a 7.3 rating with 233,955 votes on the Chinese equivalent of Rotten Tomatoes (Douban.com), while Star Wars: The Force Awakens has barely half that number of votes.
Notably, The Mermaid is not pure escapist entertainment. The ills it addresses—environmental pollution and rampant speculation against the backdrop of a widening income gap—are impossible-to-ignore facts of everyday experience for a Chinese audience. The film opens with a montage of documentary-style footage: sludge pouring from factory pipes, oil-smothered animals, dolphins being herded up for slaughter. A destructive sonar machine, commissioned by the ruthless land tycoon Liu Xuan (Deng Chao), is being deployed to drive sea animals away from a protected sanctuary he wants to develop. Desperate to regain access to the sea, the merpeople hatch a plan to send mermaid Shan Shan (Jelly Lin) to assassinate Liu Xuan and shut off the sonar, but predictably, the plan is foiled when Shan Shan falls in love and refuses to kill Liu Xuan. Remorseful, she weeps beneath a green tank where a merboy floats, unconscious, open sores covering his small body.
As I watched, I wondered why the government would sanction and even promote an environmental film highlighting problems directly resulting from its own policies. The image of the boy must be incredibly resonant with Chinese families who can no longer allow their children to play outside because of air pollution. But according to Sam Geall, editor of China and the Environment: The Green Revolution (Zed Books 2013), none of this is surprising: The environment has long been a permitted space for criticism and debate, because the government is "keen to show it shares public concerns," though only to an extent. Geall cites a case from 2015 when a CCTV journalist named Chai Jing released a documentary about air pollution that went viral and was even praised by China's top environmental minister before it was abruptly pulled by censors. Geall says this example illustrates the fine "balancing act" that cultural works must face.
Eveline Chao, a former editor of China International Business who wrote a fascinating essay about her relationship with her censor, agrees that the government knows that pollution and the unaffordability of real estate are central anxieties in Chinese life, and that a certain amount of discussion needs to occur, insofar as the conversations remain lukewarm. Chao—who has not yet seen the film—believes that if The Mermaid had been a drama "that connected the dots a little more between real-estate developers and the government officials they're usually in cahoots with, it would have a lot more trouble passing the censors."
I left the film thinking about the "veiled criticality" of art under repressive governments, to quote Martha Rosler, and how naturalized viewers learn to read beneath allegory and symbolism. It's an almost existential joke when Liu Xuan, stuck in traffic and unable to rescue Shan Shan, yells into the smoggy abyss: "Is anyone in charge here?" And in one of the pivotal scenes, where Liu Xuan, newly reformed, rushes into the boardroom to demand that the sonar be shut off, we see just outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, a blurry, dismal construction site at the edge of a forest. The critique dwells safely within the limits of the allegorical while the real anxieties, however obscured, remain just outside the window.
There is a theory called the Benign Violation Theory, which posits that humor happens when you pair a transgression with something harmless, creating a structure in which to enjoy the incongruity. Such a theory accounts for humor's ability to soothe, provide release, and make us feel better. The Mermaid does a remarkably good job of smoothing over violation with a whole lot of platitudes and placating. Shan Shan's speech where she asks what good money would do in a world without clean air and water may as well have been lifted from a greenwashed Exxon-Mobil commercial. There's just enough substance there to generate frisson, but not enough to incite action. Does the final violent standoff between the merpeople and the money-crazed, AK-wielding capitalists recall the documentary The Cove, or does it conjure images of mass executions? Filtered through the absurdist choreography and Lisa Frank CGI, all this bloodshed only seems a little bit terrible, the way cartoon characters can be gleefully tortured without consequence.
Perhaps the success of The Mermaid is just this: It serves a cathartic function, providing an anxious Chinese audience with an opportunity to laugh at their daily injustices, pairing an everyday violation with a larger dose of fairy tale, one in which everything will work out in the end. The sonars will be switched off, the good guys will win, the bad guys lose. And even though the death toll was high and the future is gloomy, everyone can at least enjoy this one last leap into the ocean.
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