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The Mermaid’s US Distributors Ignore This International Blockbuster

Stephen Chow’s movie, The Mermaid, has reached rather mythic box office proportions.

As of Saturday, March 5th, this weird and whimsical rom-com eco-parable (don’t forget slapstick physical comedy!) became the first movie in China to earn more than $500 million domestically. Throughout the entire weekend, it earned $9.9 million, pushing its total gross earnings to $505 million after 28 days in theaters (information reported by the Ent Group as of March 7 in China).

While The Mermaid joins an elite group of movies to earn “more than $500 million from a single territory”, it is the only movie to do so outside of American box offices. The other films are: Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($928.8 million), Avatar ($749.8 million), Titanic ($600.8 million), Jurassic World ($652 million), The Avengers ($623.4 million), and The Dark Knight ($533.3 million). (Source The Hollywood Reporter)

Needless to say, The Mermaid is a bona fide blockbuster. Then why is this blockbuster mostly a “word of mouth” movie in the US?

Why has North American distributor Sony given it scant marketing? Even after earning $1 million on only 35 North American screens during its opening weekend, and continuing to earn over $2 million on only 77 screens in two weeks, why is The Mermaid only receiving minimal North American marketing exposure?

Too “Chinese” for American audiences?

I had the opportunity to see The Mermaid a week ago. As a resident of Hong Kong, I’d been seeing previews and posters for this movie for some time. It was kind of impossible to get away from it. With an image of a huge, glittering mermaid tail amidst rough water and sometimes four goofy-looking characters peeking out of a bathtub, it didn’t matter that I couldn’t read most of the Chinese characters on the promotional materials — the movie looked cool.

Even my husband, who can only understand a handful of basic Cantonese (though originally in Mandarin, the movie was dubbed into Cantonese for Hong Kong audiences), thought the trailer for the movie was funny and refreshingly “bizarre”. When we finally found the time to go see The Mermaid, my husband and I were intrigued by the hype and excited to see what some are calling Stephen Chow’s “best movie in years”.

But I admit I didn’t know quite what to expect. I was somewhat familiar with Chow’s brand of mo lei tau or “makes no sense” humor (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle) that is so intrinsic to Hong Kong comedies, but I wondered if I would be able to appreciate the movie’s story beyond gags and pratfalls. Though I live in Hong Kong and have a reasonable grasp of the Cantonese language, I am an American and my movie sensibilities are distinctly American.

And while I can’t speak for the entire American movie-going public, I wondered if my reaction to The Mermaid might inform me as to why Sony handled the film so gingerly. Could it just be “too Chinese” for North American audiences?

After seeing the The Mermaid, my answer is a resounding NOPE.

First and foremost The Mermaid is funny, visually funny. You could watch the movie on mute and still get a laugh from what is happening on-screen — vital to a movie released with subtitles in the US. Don’t get me wrong, while there is a twisted glee to the jokes, and many of them rely on broad or even gross humor, the gags aren’t (always) dumb. They work within the “anything goes” world that Chow establishes, and help to energetically pull the audience along in the story.

Two people splashing in the water in a still from the Chinese film Mei Ren Yu or The Mermaid.

And what is that story? I wasn’t kidding when I called it a rom-com eco-parable.

A powerful business tycoon, Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) purchases Green Gulf, a marine and wildlife sanctuary, with the intention of developing it. In order to rid Green Gulf of all the pesky wildlife, he and his evil business cohorts create sonar technology that will kill or maim all the creatures in Green Gulf — including merpeople.

So the merpeople decide to fight back. Disguised as a human woman, the they send their loveliest mermaid, Shan (Lin Yun) to charm notorious womanizer Xuan, and lure him to his death.

Xuan takes the bait and hijinks ensue. After a failed (and hilariously choreographed) assassination attempt by Shan, Xuan and Shan spend the evening together and fall in love — with the help of a carnival and A LOT of roasted chicken. I could explain this, but I won’t. Chow feels no need to explain some of the non sequiturs of his movie, so in keeping with that, neither will I.

After Xuan and Shan’s very short fairytale courtship, the lovers must confront the inevitable: her people want to kill him because he is killing her people. What follows is not only a battle for the safety of Green Gulf (and a none too subtle SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT angle), but a fight for Xuan and Shan to survive at the hands of each other’s people.

Though there were a scarce few times when the humor in The Mermaid defied translation — like a scene where the Chinese slang for “prostitute” or “chicken” made for an accidentally raunchy exchange between Shan and Xuan — I never felt as if I couldn’t relate to the movie. At the core of The Mermaid is a very human story of survival. Survival of our communities, our interests, our very existence, even the survival of love.

And while there is a different rhythm and sensibility to Chow’s world, and perhaps the CGI is not of the level western audiences are generally accustomed to, never did I feel like I couldn’t get onboard with it. From the opening scene of a shoddy, comically sloppy “oddities show”, the audience is ushered into a world where a sort of crackling lunacy is the norm, and really, ain’t it grand?

For a film so relatable, the US distributor seems largely uncaring

Essentially, The Mermaid is different enough from western rom-coms/fantasies to feel wild and unexpected, but familiar enough to be relatable on a human level. Well, as relatable as a human-octopus merman cooking his own, “personal” brand of grilled tako.

If The Mermaid was given even half the marketing in North America that I’ve seen in Hong Kong, or you know, a quarter of the marketing the latest “explosions-robot-dinosaur-teenagers” flick got, Sony would have a sizable US hit on its hands. The North American box office of The Mermaid to date, would indicate that.

It’s sad really, that America is kept oblivious to what a huge part of the world is enjoying, all because a studio doesn’t have faith in American audiences.

On RogerEbert.com, Simon Abrams wrote:

Sony ought to be ashamed for keeping such a good film from American viewers who aren’t already part of the Chinese diasporic community. Three of the four Sony representatives I spoke with didn’t even know that the company was releasing The Mermaid. The fourth rep told me that his company hadn’t thought to set up advanced screenings for US press, or even send out an email alerting them to the film’s impending release. I was told that the film had already gotten positive reviews—all pegged to its release in Asia—and that Sony didn’t expect it to interest many people, outside of Chinese or Chinese-American film fans.

This is the sad reality of foreign films in America today: the domestic marketplace is so hopelessly biased in favor of English-language films, most of them produced in the United States, that the second most popular movie in the world is treated as if it doesn’t even exist.

Abrams concludes his review by urging people to prove Sony wrong and go see The Mermaid. I second that urging.

You may not love the The Mermaid, you may not even like it. I don’t think it’s a perfect film, and Chow’s style may not appeal to everybody. But it’s a shame to let a misinformed distributor make that decision for you. If over half a billion people around the world have found something about The Mermaid engaging and worthwhile, don’t you think you might too?

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Louise Hung

An American writer living in Japan, Louise is a contributor and researcher for the Order of the Good Death and Ask a Mortician. You can find her on Twitter @LouiseHung1.