Despite appearances, ‘The Mermaid’ is a dark journey

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The age of Looney Tunes is long gone and with it a class of slapstick comedy that defined a generation. Stephen Chow is one of the few filmmakers working to keep that very class alive. “The Mermaid” is an unapologetically goofy, sometimes visually clumsy, live action cartoon with a wavering sensibility. Sometimes it’s hilarious, sometimes it’s incredibly dark, other times it’s just hard to watch.

So while Chow found broad appeal as an actor and director in his previous two features “Shaolin Soccer” and “Kung-Fu Hustle,” “The Mermaid” is much more hit-or-miss. There are a number of cringey overlong gags that rely on even clumsier CGI to work, for example. They break Chow’s characteristic momentum often, but when a bit works, it really works. One thing the movie suffers from is ambition. Sometimes, Chow self-consciously avoids what makes his comedy great: ludicrous violence and misunderstandings.

Instead, we get a much darker, angrier Stephen Chow. “The Mermaid” has earnest moments of horror peppered throughout, often bloody and heartbreaking. It pits a wealthy businessman Liu Xuan against a colony of mermaids, including the octopus man, Octopus (Show Lo). Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) and his business partner Ruolan (Zhang Yuqi) has purchased the mermaid’s home, Green Gulf, to reclaim the sea around it. With a bloody history with human beings close behind them, the mermaids lure him to their house using Shan (Lin Yun). Some complications force Shan into Xuan’s life, and the two fall deep in love.

Despite its fantastical exterior, “The Mermaid” is, by far, the grittiest of Chow’s work. In an exemplary scene, the mermaids’ matriarch recounts their history of contact with man using only the water, crafting it into boats and airplanes. What she relays is brutal and bloody, but it’s presented in a beautiful way.

The beauty comes in spats, however, most poignant moments are underserved by some flat performances, especially Lin Yun in the lead role. It’s strange. Sometimes she’s on, but most of the time she’s not. Alongside Deng Chao, her performances feel monotonous. That being said, she does have the second best bit of physical comedy in the movie. It’s a wonderfully choreographed and painful dance sequence that recalls the famous knife gag of “Kung-Fu Hustle.”

The movie’s slapstick can sometimes feel sloppy or too willfully goofy, but you can’t help but smile watching it. It’s a feel-good movie, at least for a while. Then it shifts gears into something far more tragic. While that could be a good thing if it was utilized well, it’s not utilized well here.

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It ends up feeling emotionally jarring to start the movie with archival footage of waste disposal and animal slaughter and expect viewers to laugh at the grilling and mutilation of Octopus later.

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In fact, the movie seems to get less funny as it goes along. It doesn’t muster enough viewer goodwill to earn those abrupt shifts in tone. They just feel abrupt, and in a movie as wild as this, the last thing you want is to feel lost. Chow’s earlier efforts strike a balance between those qualities, but “The Mermaid” overreaches and ends up falling short. When the credits roll, it was admirable to watch it reach at all.